Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Dancing at Lughnasa
Also see Richard's review of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
But there are some wonderful things in this Dancing at Lughnasa, even beyond the excellent acting and the directing by Gary Barker. It's just the unbearable Irishness of it all: just when you thought you'd never tire of the keening brogue or wistful fatalism of the Emerald Isle, this play comes back and punches you right in the face, like Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York, with one psychological brutality after another. The actresses make you fall in love with them all, and then there's this godawful torment of each of their singularly Irish fates, as they're crushed by big city ways, and industrialism, and their own illusions of men.
You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll slash your wrists. But, again, there are some major redeeming elements.
Everybody's great, on stage and off, in this tenth season closer for Mustard Seed Theatre: Amy Loui is the school teacher "matriarch" in this clan of sisters, counting herself smart, but paying dearly for it when she foresees her family's horrible, impending doom; Kelley Weber is delightful as the sister who tells all the bad jokes; Michelle Hand is touching and mysterious as the tetched sibling; Leslie Wobbe makes an unexpectedly indelible impression with the sparest of roles on stage; and Jennifer Theby Quinn is absolutely grand as the narrator's mother, Chris.
Maybe these characters are just not supposed to be so genuinely lovable, as they spiral deliriously into a metaphorical mass grave: a big dance in act one is thrilling to behold, where they yip and clog and go round in a circle till they nearly collapse, breathless. But considering the sisters' tragic fates, I'm pretty sure if playwright Friel had an airport, Donald Trump would blow it up.
It may be because director Barker went out of his way to grab up the very finest actors he could get for this show (he, himself, just staged a five-star production of Intimate Apparel at the New Jewish Theatre). Maybe here they're "too good," and the performances need to be more ironic, or heightened, or observed, as it is a memory play, with narrator Jim Butz (as Michael Evans) representing the author.
Mr. Butz is certainly going to be one of the most meaningful and important actors in town, after a handful of guys like Gary Glasgow hang it up in twenty years or so. However, I just wanted to strangle his remembering character, or take a red pen to the script and cut each of his speeches in half. They are Irish lyricism, run amok.
But our hopes are restored, perhaps most improbably, by Richard Strelinger as Gerry, the pathological liar of the piece: he'd be the most amazing thing in this play, if it weren't for the aforementioned Mr. Glasgow as Father Jack, who has an even more incredible character and performance in store. We go into the theater thinking it's a women's play, and then these two male characters just leap off the stage and take up full residence in the heart and mind. Playing by the rules gets you nowhere in Mr. Friel's book, and (fortunately for Gerry and Jack) neither one of them is capable of playing by the rules.
In Mr. Strelinger's case it is his Gerry, an irresistible spellbinder of a traveling salesman, who turns Chris's heart from ice to something steaming with his lies. He is impossible to turn away from, to be loved and loathed all at once. But that raises another unbearable tragedy, hard-wired into the women here, that some part of them is just incomplete without a man around to give them confidence, no matter how antithetical it may be to the story of their interdependence (because women, evidently, cannot give one another hope). Or, it's just part of the whole bottomless emotional chasm of this strangely ruthless story.
In any case, it seems even our finest actors, in their most glittering roles, can't beat that darned Gary Glasgow on stage. As Father Jack, he is a ruin of a man, still thrashing his way through some invisible jungle, returning from an evangelical career in a leper colony in Uganda. Sadly, though, Jack is the only one who's ever been converted during that long mission, swallowed up by North African tribal culture. His reputation as an Irish Catholic folk hero is consequently ripped to shreds on his homecoming, for his utter failure in the Great Commission.
Yet that, astonishingly, is the redemption Father Jack offers these women: his African lessons on life would serve them far better than the church does, but they're just incapable of seizing upon his imported brand of wisdom. In that light, perhaps I'm totally mistaken: maybe it is a great play, and I just don't like being hit again and again on such a deeply troubling level, forced to realize that all of us are blind to the real nature of the world, and all of us are trusting the wrong things, unless we ourselves can harness the power of illusion.
Through April 30, 2017, at the black box theater on the campus of Fontbonne University. For more information visit www.mustardseedtheatre.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association