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Dancing at Lughnasa
by Brian Friel
Directed by Gary Barker
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 15, 2017

Michelle Hand, Amy Loui, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Leslie Wobbe, Kelley Weber
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Irish playwright Brian Friel’s “memory play” Dancing at Lughnasa, as staged currently at Mustard Seed Theatre, is almost like a prose poem on stage. With its strong sense of time and place, and its conceit of having the narrator both interacting with the story and also reflecting upon it, the show takes on a lyrical tone that works well. With a cast of some of St. Louis’s finest performers and top-notch production values, this is a profoundly affecting theatrical experience.

The story is told by the adult Michael Evans (Jim Butz), reflecting back on an important time in his life, the summer of 1936 when he was a 7-year-old child growing up in the small Irish village of Ballybeg. The key figures in the story are the five Mundy sisters, including Michael’s mother, the youngest sister Christina or “Chris” (Jennifer Theby-Quinn). The five sisters live together in a small cottage, including the eldest, prim schoolteacher Kate (Amy Loui), as well as the boisterous Maggie (Kelley Weber), the melancholy Agnes (Leslie Wobbe), and developmentally challenged Rose (Michelle Hand). The sisters seem to cooperate in the raising of Michael, who doesn’t appear on stage as a child–rather the adult Michael “plays” the young Michael in occasional conversations with his mother and aunts. Amid the local celebrations of the pagan holiday Lughnasa, the sisters are celebrating the return of their older brother, Father Jack (Gary Glasgow), who has recently returned from many years of missionary work in Africa, and who isn’t quite the same as his sisters remember. There’s also Gerry Evans (Richard Strelinger), Michael’s Welsh father, who never married Chris but who stops by occasionally in the midst of his travels to visit Michael and Chris. While in the past, Gerry’s visits have been the cause for much consternation, this latest visit starts out that way but grows more hopeful, at least for a while. The story that follows is a vivid picture of a time and place, as well as these richly portrayed characters and their conflicting attitudes toward the world around them and the great changes that are starting to take place. The conflict between Catholicism and the ancient local beliefs and customs, as well as changing economic realities and the roles of women in society, are among the issues that are brought up here. There’s a lot of warmth and humor here, as well as music and exuberant dancing in addition to regret and even tragedy, structured in a way that makes the story all the more poignant in that older Michael often explains future events before we actually see them play out in the story.

The cast here is excellent, led by Butz’s engaging, reflective Michael, who serves as an effective narrator but also is believable in his moments as “young Michael” interacting with the rest of the cast. All five sisters are strongly portrayed, with Weber’s upbeat Maggie, Wobbe’s wistful Agnes, and Theby-Quinn’s conflicted and sometimes moody Chris as the biggest standouts. All five actresses are strong, though, and their bond as sisters is clearly evident. Also memorable is Glasgow, in the best performance I’ve seen from him, as the weary but well-meaning Father Jack, whose personal crisis of faith becomes evident as the story progresses. Strelinger rounds out the cast in an amiable performance as the charming, always-wandering Gerry, who has some particularly effective scenes with Theby-Quinn and with Wobbe. The Irish accents are consistent throughout, as well, with the exception of Strelinger, who affects a believable English accent although his character is Welsh.

The Irish village setting is vividly realized in Kyra Bishop’s beautifully detailed set, Jane Sullivan’s well-appointed costumes, and Laura Skroska’s props. The vintage radio, called “Marconi”, essentially becomes a character in its own right. There’s also excellent sound design by Zoe Sulliven and striking lighting by Michael Sullivan. All of these technical aspects work together well, along with the strong direction and performances, to transport the audience to 1930’s Ireland.

Although I had heard of Dancing at Lughnasa before, I had never actually seen it on stage until this production. Mustard Seed’s production is lovingly, poetically told and beautifully portrayed by its strong, cohesive cast. It’s an excellent conclusion to this company’s 2016-2017 season.

Gary Glasgow, Amy Loui, Michelle Hand, Leslie Wobbe, Richard Strelinger
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting Dancing at Lughnasa at Fontbonne University until April 30, 2017.

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