Sisters Doing It for Themselves: DANCING AT LUGHNASA at Curio Theatre Company

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

West Philly’s Curio Theatre Company starts the lead-up to Spring by staging Brian Friel’s 1990 play about five sisters in rural western Ireland. DANCING AT LUGHNASA, a sweetly humorous and touching dramedy, is directed by Gay Carducci and runs from February 15th to March 15th on the theatre’s main stage. It is 1936 in the fictional town of Ballybeg (which means “small town” in Gaelic) in Ireland’s County Donegal; Kate Mundy and her family are desperately trying to hold onto their home—and each other. Friel based his story of the Mundy sisters partly on the lives of his mother and her sisters, who grew up in the town of Glenties on Ireland’s rugged West coast. The play in set during the Celtic celebration of Lughnasadh: a time of reaping what has been sown.

A “memory play,” DANCING AT LUGHNASA is told from the point of view of Michael, the adult child of Christina, (the youngest of the five Mundy girls) who has fallen under the spell of Gerry Evans—a charming but irresponsible travelling salesman. Gerry (Steve Carpenter) floats in and out of their lives, leaving Christina devastated each time he leaves. Michael (Eric Scotolati) is 7 and Christina (Isa St. Clair) is 26 during this August of great change at the Mundy cottage. The sisters interact with the little boy, but he is never seen onstage—adult Michael responds to his aunts as he observes and comments on the action. Kate (Jennifer Summerfield) is the eldest of the girls, and is the only wage-earner of the family, as well as the authority figure. Next in line is Maggie (Trice Baldwin), an earthy woman who serves as the primary “homemaker” for the family. It is her sense of humor that seems to offer the most support to her sisters, defusing any tensions that arise among the ladies. While challenging Kate’s authority, but in a joking manner, Maggie also serves as her sister’s confidante. The two remaining sisters are Agnes (Aetna Gallagher), who is 35 and secretly infatuated with Gerry. She and Rose (Colleen Hughes) bring in a small amount of money by knitting gloves, but that soon ends when a knitware factory opens in a nearby town. Rose, who is 32, has a developmental disability so she would not be able to get work at the factory—and Agnes won’t go without her. Rose’s innocence causes her to fall prey to an unseen local boy named Danny Bradley, whom she thinks is in love with her. Also on hand is the women’s older brother, Father Jack (Leonard Kelly), who has returned home after 25 years as a missionary at a leper colony in Uganda. Father Jack is suffering from malaria and has trouble remembering things—including his sisters’ names. It becomes clear as things progress that Father Jack has “gone native” and abandoned most of his Catholic beliefs, much to Kate’s horror.

(Left to right top:) Eric Scotolati, Colleen Hughes, Aetna Gallagher, Isa St. Clair, Steve Carpenter, Len Kelly. (Left to right front :) Trice Baldwin, Isa St. Clair, and Jennifer Summerfield. (Photo credit: Claire Horvath)

(Left to right top:) Eric Scotolati, Colleen Hughes, Aetna Gallagher, Isa St. Clair, Steve Carpenter, Len Kelly. (Left to right front 🙂 Trice Baldwin, Isa St. Clair, and Jennifer Summerfield. (Photo credit: Claire Horvath)

Director Carducci has done a great job of showing the love and strength of this family—and the fact that the actors are, for the most part, members of the resident company adds greatly to the sense of connection. She has paced the action well and shows this was truly a labor of love. Each member of the ensemble truly knows and respects their character, with all turning in solid, nuanced performances. Standout moments are provided by Trice Baldwin, whose Maggie is wonderfully wisecracking, yet shows tremendous vulnerability throughout as well. Leonard Kelly shines as well as Father Jack, imbuing great sensitivity into his portrayal of this ill and confused man. Not to say that the rest of the cast is not strong as well. Their Irish accents were, for the most part, spot-on and understandable to the audience.

Playing the piece very closely to the audience really enhances the sense of eavesdropping on this family’s struggle. And once again, Paul Kuhn has provided the cast an excellent set to play upon. Patrick Lamborn’s soundscape had us tapping our toes to the lively Irish jigs as we waited for the performance to start—and then supported the story beautifully. Also lending perfect support to the piece is Tim Martin’s lighting. Aetna Gallagher’s simple earth-toned costumes are also greatly evocative of the era and the family’s limited economic condition.

My grandfather emigrated from Ireland’s County Mayo in the early 1900s, so I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Irish plays—with DANCING AT LUGHNASA being a personal favorite. It is a moving story of how the human spirit can either fight on against hardships, or give in to despair. Or escape into mental illness to cope. In spite of the seriousness of the story, the play is quite funny and heartwarming. By all means, make the trip down Baltimore Avenue and enter Curio’s world of the play. You will have a new appreciation for the Irish and a great way to get in the mood for St. Patty’s Day.

By Brian Friel
Directed by Gay Carducci-Kuhn
February 15—March 15, 2014
Curio Theatre Company
4740 Baltimore Avenue
Philadelphia, Pa 19143
For tickets call 215-525-1350

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