Joyous “Dancing At Lughnasa” Closes Out Mustard Seed Season

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A group shot of some of the cast of “Dancing At Lughnasa” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

It’s funny that several people I talked to after the opening night performance of “Dancing At Lughnasa” at Mustard Seed Theatre had the same reaction I did- this was the first production of this Brian Friel Tony Award winning play that I really enjoyed. It’s a charming memory play involving five sisters living in the fictional town of Ballybeg in County Donegal, Ireland. More later about my reasoning for not really getting into this play before now but the cast, direction and the whole feel of this production brought the story and the family closer than ever before.

Being a memory play, we first meet a grown up Michael, given a solid and straightforward performance by Jim Butz, as he reflects on being a 7 year old in 1936 and  living a poor yet grand existence with his mother and four aunts. Although he is not really there, he responds to his family as they occasionally interact with his young self and we see some of his handiwork like a couple of kites and a top. Jennifer Theby Quinn gives a rich and wonderful performance as Chris Mundy- the youngest sister and mother of young Michael. She is solid in her conviction to stay away from her errant husband who leaves for sometimes years at a time but then she soon becomes a giddy young girl as he re-enters her life once again. Richard Strelinger is a charmer as her husband, Gerry, who woos her once again before he leaves with promises to return to her and Michael as soon as he can.

Amy Loui is the strong pillar of the Mundy family, Kate, major breadwinner. Whenever things to go off the wheels, she always brings it all back into focus. Kelley Weber is the heart and soul of the clan as she is the chief cook and bottle washer. Leslie Wobbe is the quiet one of the bunch- Agnes. She and her sister Rose bring in a bit of money as they sew gloves to sell to the richer ladies in town. And finally, Michelle Hand is a study in enthusiasm as Rose. Though a bit addled, she manages to spark the fun times the ladies have together. Finally, Gary Glasgow shines as Jack, the older brother of the five ladies who has had his brains addled a bit as well, serving in Uganda with lepers for many years until he has become a bit too settled in the “native” ways.

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A strong ensemble highlights the Mustard Seed Theatre production of “Dancing At Lughnasa.” Photo: John Lamb

This off-beat family struggles to survive but have each others’ backs and find the fun in a world that is starting to come loose at the hinges. They have acquired a wireless which they call Marconi- since that is what is emblazoned on the front. The only problem is, it is erratic and only seems to come alive with news and music when it feels like it. But when it sparks into life, the ladies dance and sing and joy pours out of every one of them.

Director Gary Barker has brought a lust for life to this production which I cannot recall seeing before. It’s a spirited production with highs and lows that speak to the times as well as their lifestyle. He’s been blessed with a wonderful ensemble that is really dedicated to this play. Another reason I believe this production has won us all over is the work of Nancy Bell as dialect coach. There’s nothing more difficult than listening to a random set of accents that sometime work and other times do not. She has instilled a true sense of the lilt of the brogue in all the players and it pays off in a believable rhythm to this play that never falters.

The Kyra Bishop set design is a work of art in itself with a cutaway peek at the interior of the cottage and the expansive playing area outside of the house as well. Jane Sullivan’s costumes are exquisite and Michael Sullivan’s lighting design enhances the overall production beautifully. Zoe Sullivan gets into the act too with a wonderful sound design. Kudos as well to Helen Gannon as the Irish dance choreographer who brings the spirit of the “dance” to “Dancing At Lughnasa.”

Brian Friel has set several plays in this fictitious town of Ballybeg including another fine play, “Philadelphia, Here I Come.” West End Players Guild did an excellent job as well with one of his other plays several years ago, “Lovers: Winners And Losers.” But this one has always had me scratching my head until this delightfully rich production at Mustard Seed. It won’t soon be forgotten.

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Amy Loui, Michelle Hand, Leslie Wobbe and Jennifer Theby Quinn in “Dancing At Lughnasa” at Mustard Seed Theatre. Photo: John Lamb

“Dancing At Lughnasa” plays at Mustard Seed Theatre at Fontbonne through April 30th. Give them a call at 314-719-8060 for tickets or more information. With this one going simultaneously with the strong performances at St. Louis Actors’ Studio and their production of “August: Osage County,” it’s a grand month for our local actresses. Go see them all.

 

 

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