Brian Friel’s Tony-winning memory play about the household of unmarried sisters who raised him in a small town in County Donegal, Ireland in the Depression-era 1930s, proves a perfect fit for five of of Actors Co-op’s finest leading ladies in roles that could have been written with each of them in mind. Need I say more?
In the interest of doing justice to their work, and to the beautifully staged production they anchor, I suppose I should.
Nan McNamara, Rory Patterson, Maurie Speed, Tannis Hanson, and Lauren Thompson star as Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, and Chris Mundy, with Michael Knowles as our narrator Michael, the grown-up version of Chris’s “love child,” just seven years old when the arrival of the sisters’ first “Marconi” and its live radio broadcasts signaled just one of multiple changes about to impact their lives forever.
The return home of eldest Mundy sibling Father Jack (Mark Bramhall) following twenty-five years of service as a Catholic missionary in Uganda is another, as is the sudden arrival of Chris’s charming but ne’er-do-well ex, Michael’s dad Gerry Evans (Stephen Van Dorn).
Not much “happens” per se in Dancing At Lughnasa, which is why the play proves less edge-of-your-seat compelling than say this past spring’s Summer And Smoke.
Still, little by little Friel’s gossamer comedy-drama exerts its own magic spell under Heather Chesley’s nuanced direction.
McNamara anchors the production as eldest sister Kate, she of the stern gaze and occasionally wagging finger, the Co-op treasure digging deep into the oceans of a near-maternal love hidden beneath a tendency to judge and forbid.
Patterson is a hoot as feisty chain-smoking jokester Maggie, Speed is a quiet force as Agnes, and Thompson could not be a lovelier Chris, the only sister who may just have a future ahead of her that doesn’t involve tending to the fivesome’s home.
As for Rose, it’s hard to imagine another actress in town better able to suggest the second youngest sister’s “simplicity” with more subtlety, grace, and depth than the unforgettable Hanson.
Bramhall is heartbreaking as the nearly (but not quite) broken Father Jack, a scene in which he recounts to Kate his Catholic-turned-pagan life in Africa providing a master class in layered brilliance (his) and subtle reacting (McNamara’s), the kind that one can only be witnessed on film and in 99-seat theater intimacy.
A perfectly cast Van Dorn is a charismatic charmer as Gerry, and Co-op newcomer Knowles’s understated performance as Michael is a fine one too. (Still, I can’t help wishing the playwright had not specified that seven-year-old Michael speak in an adult voice rather than a child’s.)
The Crossley Theatre’s thrust stage works especially well for Dancing At Lughansa, scenic designer Michael Kramer’s lovely furniture-and-fireplace-and-sky set making us flies on the Mundy sisters’ walls, and it has been exquisitely lit by Bill E. Kickbush and decorated with Lori Berg’s props, precisely what you’d expect to find in a mid-1930s Irish village home.
Wendell C. Carmichael scores high marks for his costumes, the sisters’ rustic prints in particular, as does Krys Fehervari for her just-right hair designs. An uncredited sound design features era-establishing ’30s radio tunes.
Lastly, for a play entitled Dancing At Lughnasa, there must indeed be dancing, and Julie Hall’s choreography impresses from the production’s graceful opening tableau to some exhilarating Irish jigs to a bit of Fred-and-Ginger ballroom (minus taffeta and tails).
Dialect Adam Michael Rose insures that each performer nails her or his brogue (and Van Dorn his Welsh accent).
Dancing At Lughnasa is produced by Thomas Chavira. TinTin Nguyen is stage manager.
It’s hard to imagine another 99-seat theater company in L.A. with five actresses so “born to play their parts” as those taking centertage in Dancing At Lughnasa, just one of many reasons Brian Friel’s most acclaimed play makes for a memorable Actors Co-op 24th-season closer.
Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
May 21, 2016
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly