“Dancing at Lughnasa,” written by Brian Friel, kicked off this week at The Gladstone Theatre. This classic Irish story was presented collaboratively between Three Sisters Theatre Company and Seven Thirty Productions. I anticipated that this powerhouse theatrical partnership would make for an incredible combination of acting brilliance and exceptional quality set and costume design. I was not disappointed.
Set in the mid 1930’s, and narrated in retrospect from the 1980’s, this tale of five sisters and a brother takes place in a fictional town called Ballybeg in Ireland. This proper Christian family had five sisters playing various household roles, a young boy of seven years old, and a brother who had recently returned from serving as a missionary in Africa. The family struggles against their desire to break free of their traditional Christian beliefs and “regress” into a Pagan lifestyle.
As mentioned, the story was narrated from the 1980’s by the grown-up version of one of the sister’s sons, who was only seven at the time that the story was written. The Narrator, played by J.T. Morris, was very good. His Irish accent and story telling abilities were incredible, and his facial reactions throughout the whole story were outstanding. You could feel the emotion of the story taking place around him just by watching his expressions. Although I believe Morris himself was excellent, I found his role to be a little odd. As he played both the narrator and the 7-year-old boy, his presence on the stage throughout the story was a bit confusing. I believe I counted five monologues throughout the play, which were all excellent, but when the other performers had their scenes without him, he crept around the stage with a notebook and just listened, reacting visually to what they were saying. I suppose I understand why it was written like this, but I do find it to be an unusual style which took a bit of getting used to. Also, when the sisters interacted with the young boy, they spoke to an imaginary person, but Morris responded from wherever he happened to be at the time. It was well orchestrated theatrically, but unusual, and it took a little away from the overall performance for me.
I think my favourite part of the whole presentation was the set and costume design. The set was a static scene focusing on the kitchen area of the home where the entire family lived, as well as the area just outside of the house, in a hayfield and lawn/garden. The props scattered around the kitchen were all reminiscent of the 1930’s, right down to the containers for the groceries and the antique cigarette packages ,and they were perfectly implemented. An incredible amount of effort must have gone into the design of the set and props, so kudos to set designer David Magladry on that. The costumes were no different, as they were equally brilliant. Michelle Ferranti was the costume design lead, and her work was spot-on. I particularly loved the old military uniform worn by Father Jack.
Stand Out Performances:
Almost the entire cast has an impressive list of theatrical credits to their name, and there were some familiar faces from previous shows that I have seen and reviewed (some of the actors have been notable stand out performers for me before!) It was hard to select only a few as just about everyone in the performance impressed me. However, I have chosen just three to highlight. I’ve already mentioned J.T. Morris above for his outstanding ability to tell a story so eloquently using facial expressions and a terrific accent, so I’ll start with my favourite performance of the show:
Maggie, played by Cindy Beaton, was incredible. In any story with such serious undertones and a strong focus on emotion and dramatical impact, comedy is often non-existent. However, Beaton provided the slight comedy relief, in the role of the sister who was most rough around the edges, most eager to break the stalemate of a typical good-mannered Christian family. Beaton was funny, but not so much as to distract the audience from the seriousness of the play. Her comedy was well used, and underscored her quirky characteristics rather than providing full on, over the top humour. She really made the show for me.
Tom Charlebois, portraying Father Jack, also had a strong performance. Although he didn’t have as much stage time as the sisters, his interpretation of an aging man suffering from the onset of what appeared to be PTSD while remembering his Paganistic experiences in Africa, was truly incredible. From his hand tremors, to struggling for his verbal skills to return, Charlebois nailed this role and depicted these characteristics of suffering perfectly.
I also want to briefly mention Kate, played by Linda Webster. Her character is the “stuck-up” and most strictly religious sister of the house. She handled this role perfectly in her interaction with her sisters. Overall, I really enjoyed how well all five of the sisters interacted together and complemented one another in this whole performance. I would say about 90% of the story was just the five of them discussing problems, bickering about personal choices, and reminiscing about their lives. It was refreshing to see a performance with a group of people who allowed the conversation to flow so nicely, it felt very natural and authentic. All five of the sisters were excellent.
Overall, despite being unlike most shows that I’ve attended, this theatrical presentation was excellent! It is very dialogue heavy, which for me demonstrates incredible skill by the performers. The story is deep, and it take place in an era with substantial history of the industrialization in the world, right between two world wars. It was a difficult time in history, and it’s portrayed perfectly.
The play continues at The Gladstone Theatre almost daily until March 21st. I recommend going to see it; tickets are available either online through the Gladstone’s website, or at their box office.
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