Sunday, September 9, 2018

Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel

The last few years, local theater The Empty Space has blended familiar classic and modern plays with some unusual and bold selections. Alas, I haven’t been free to see everything, but have caught some of the best ones. My wife and I had an evening free, and went to see Dancing at Lughnasa, which I hadn’t previously heard of, but thought might be interesting.

Based loosely on his mother’s family, Dancing at Lughnasa was written by Irish playwright Brian Friel in 1990. It was later made into a movie starring Meryl Streep, apparently. I’m not much of a moviegoer, so I haven’t seen it.

The play has certain similarities to a couple of other plays that TES has put on in the last two years, notably Three Sisters, with its ensemble of sisters living together with a brother who is challenging to say the least. There are also similarities to The Glass Menagerie, with the missing father, and a son who leaves to seek his fortune. Perhaps the reason that variants on the same story are told so many times is that it is a common one in human experience.

The five sisters in this play are Kate, the eldest, who is employed as a school teacher, and is devoutly Catholic; Maggie, who is a bit of a clown outwardly, but who keeps house and keeps everyone together; Agnes, quiet and yet wishing to get out and dance at the festival; Rose, developmentally disabled and childlike; and Christine, the youngest, who has a child with a man who abandoned her. The play is told from the perspective of the child, Michael, who appears only as an adult narrating the play from beyond the action. The other two characters are Uncle Jack, a missionary to a leper colony in Uganda, who has been sent home because he has essentially “gone native” and abandoned the Catholic faith; and Gerry Evans, Michael’s father.

The sisters are, shall we say, “past their prime,” and have extremely limited prospects in the Ireland of the 1930s. Kate loses her job because she is “tainted” by her brother’s apostasy. Agnes and Rose knit gloves until a factory puts them out of work. Christine is unemployable as a “fallen woman.” They scrape by, but it is a hard life. Society really has little use for old maids, particularly ones who have tainted families.

When Gerry reappears, he turns out to be not quite the irredeemable rake that Kate claims he is. He is catastrophically unsuccessful at gainful employment, to be sure. And, as Michael discovers many years later, he also has a family back in Wales. But he seems genuinely in love with Christine, and makes attempts at being a good father.

In a similar way, Jack is a sympathetic character. He is suffering from malaria, and some sort of mental break which has affected his memory and his cognition. He can’t keep his sisters straight, struggles to remember English words, and is confused about whether he is in Ireland or Uganda. But the tales he tells of African ceremonies and his former life are scintillating, and he is clearly a decent man who devoted his life to helping others.

Even Kate, who seems to be a killjoy and prig has a human side, and her care for Jack even as she fights with him over religion is admirable. And, let us not forget, she is the main source of income, so it is understandable that she expects to be in charge of major decisions.

The play isn’t exactly dark, but it is rather sad. Things don’t end well, as it appears they didn’t for the playwright’s family. There just weren’t a lot of good options for 40ish unmarried women in that era.

The cast was quite small for this play. The six siblings, Gerry, and Michael, so eight in all. In general, this meant that each part was important, and there were really no “bit” parts. Every actor, therefore, had a lot of lines and a distinctive emotional role in the drama. Although all were acted well, I do want to specifically mention some of the roles in connection with the relationships portrayed.

Maggie was played by Kamala Boeck, who I am not sure I have seen before. She is on the faculty at CSUB, and has done professional voice-over work among other things. Whenever there was singing in the play, she did it, and did it well. Maggie is an interesting role, as the heart of the family, and the clown hiding her own sorrow. As such, her chemistry with the rest of the cast was crucial. 

 Kamala Boeck as Maggie

Jared Cantrell was (if I recall) Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace last year. This role is a bit less nutty, but he still had to get the tics just right. 

Jared Cantrell as Jack

Sheila McClure has been in a number of things locally, so I have seen her in various roles. As Kate, she had to be both stern and soft, and play off of Agnes and Jack. 

 Sheila McClure as Kate

DeNae Brown and Katelyn Evans (Agnes and Rose respectively) are TES regulars. Evans in particular had to portray a developmental disability without caricature - I thought it was a sensitive bit of work. 

 DeNae Brown as Agnes

 Katelyn Evans as Rose

Brian Purcell is likewise a regular, as well as a board member for TES. He’s made a career of playing the straight men, which is never the easiest job, but there is a reason he gets the roles. He doesn’t dominate the spotlight, but reliably brings a “boy next door” vibe to his roles. 

 Brian Purcell as Michael

This brings me to the couple. Chris and Gerry are a rather nuanced couple. Eight years ago, it is plenty likely that Chris was naive and easily seduced by the charming Gerry. But by this time, she knows he is totally full of shit. He still tries to spin his tales and his boasts and his plans for the future. She knows he is just making stuff up, and tells him so. But she still loves him in a way, and he loves her. Christina Goyeneche hasn’t been on stage locally for a while, but I swear I remember her from something a number of years back, although I cannot recall exactly what. Perhaps at a Bakersfield College production? Anyway, she is riveting to watch. Gerry was played by Eric Tolley, a veteran of local theater - and one of the actors I could watch in anything. The two of them really had the chemistry in this one - Gerry trying his old tricks even as he can see they are falling flat, Chris trying not to fall for him again, keeping him at arms’ length, and vacillating between mocking his lies and wanting to be with him anyway. I guess one could say, the chemistry of awkwardness. 

 Christina Goyeneche as Christine

 Eric Tolley as Gerry

The play itself wasn’t as scintillating as some - I think Chekhov did the psychology better, for example, and the action dragged a bit in spots. But the acting was compelling, and the characters drew you into the story. It was definitely worth seeing. Kudos to TES for bringing a less well known play back, with its look at a time and place less explored.

Dancing at Lughnasa was directed by CSUB Theater professor Mendy McMasters. If recent productions at CSUB are any indication, she is doing great with with our local students.

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