When faced with the choice between the safety of a familiar life and the potential of an unwritten future, which would you choose? In Quotidian Theatre’s poignant production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, five sisters maintain a comfortable yet monotonous routine in a small shared house, until male interlopers, implacable economic forces, and their own repressed desires threaten to permanently upset their cozy equilibrium.
Helmed with a delicate touch by director Craig Alan Mummey, this intimate work casts a spotlight on a summer of upheaval in the lives of Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, and Chris Mundy. As narrated from memory by Michael, Chris’s son, the five unmarried Mundy sisters cohabitate in a cottage in the small village of Ballybeg, County Donegal, northern Ireland.
Eldest sister and mother figure Kate teaches at a school and struggles to hold the family together, while the other sisters knit clothes, cook, clean, garden, and bustle about in a quiet, predictable rhythm. Actresses Leah Mazade, Stephanie Mumford, Laura Russell, Alyssa Sanders, and Rebecca Ellis exhibit strong chemistry as a close knit family that lovingly tolerates each sister’s respective foibles.
Just as the production begins to bog down in excessive exposition, the sisters’ aged brother Jack returns from missionary work in Uganda with a head full of fantastic stories and pagan traditions. Soon afterward, Chris’s wayward lover Gerry returns from his latest caper, bringing thoughts of dancing, marriage, and travel. Hidden dreams and frustrations gradually awaken within the sisters, exposing deep rifts beneath the calm surface of the household. A growing industrial presence in town further jeopardizes their sleepy way of life. Director Craig Alan Mummey manages the script’s relationships and slowly building tension with care, allowing each character to develop organically so that eventual outbursts are natural, rather than forced.
As the action unfolds and the tidy relationships devolve into messy drama, themes of regret and fear of change emerge as the two central pillars of the play. The dramatic tension primarily derives from the controlling, pious Kate, presented in a layered performance by Leah Mazade. Mazade performs a delicate balancing act between overbearing and sympathetic as she strives to maintain the status quo within the house. Kate scoffs at thoughts of travel, gossips excessively, and discounts any viewpoint that clashes with her fiercely devout Catholic sensibilities. Yet for all of her nay saying and criticism, she is ultimately trying to protect her family in the only way she understands – by erecting invisible walls of propriety and religious dogma around the tiny homestead. Mazade manages this conflicted, meaty role with tenacity and grace.
In the role of convalescent missionary Jack, Steve LaRocque gives a scintillating performance as Kate’s liberal, worldly counterpoint. As Jack’s health improves with exercise and mental stimulation, he undergoes a rapid transition from doddering geriatric to sharp minded, dancing guru. LaRocque pulsates with energy as he describes a frenzied ritual dance in a leper colony that lasted for days on end. The success of his character is paramount to the unfolding drama, because Jack and Kate represent opposite paths: one of adventure and danger, and the other of confinement and safety. Through his chimerical performance, LaRocque offers the younger sisters a rousing endorsement of the path less traveled.
David Dubov’s role as narrator and character sounding board, Michael, adds an interesting wrinkle to the otherwise conventional storytelling. Michael is ever present onstage, observing the drama with a wry smile and the benefit of hindsight. He can converse with any of the characters as his younger self, and then immediately step out of the action and deliver a monologue that adds emotional detail or even flashes forward to presage some future event. Michael’s interruptions and flash forward are jarring at times, but on the whole, Dubov’s warm presence and wistful delivery guide the action like gentle, invisible hands.
As with Dubov’s fourth wall breaking narration, the sparsely decorated stage requires some help from the audience’s imagination. Several bricks positioned about the stage mark the invisible wall dividing the cozy interior of the house from the garden and the rest of the outside world. The antique wireless radio, with its classic design and inscrutable switches, is a nice touch, but the rest of the stage could use a bit of dressing up. Meanwhile, the plain costumes suit the women’s simple, rustic lifestyle, while by contrast Jack’s gaudy military outfit and Gerry’s dandy getup accentuate their disruptive, outsize personalities.
Dancing at Lughnasa presents a very human portrait of a family in transition, framed by spirited debate on whether or not the grass is greener on the other side. We can choose to embrace change and face an uncertain future, or we can double down on safety and risk losing the great life that might have been. The play’s only conclusion is that life is hard either way. Regardless of your choice, this captivating, emotional production will make you want to hug your family and friends and dance the night away.
Dancing at Lughnasa
By Brian Friel
Directed by Craig Alan Mummey
Produced by Quotidian Theatre
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (15 minute intermission)