The bittersweet rhythms of life in the wistful, nostalgic, entertaining Dancing at Lughnasa

Opening its 2018-19 season at Alumnae Theatre last night, the Toronto Irish Players take us to 1936 Donegal, and the rural home of the Mundy family as they struggle with life, love and changing times, in their wistful, nostalgic and entertaining production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by David Eden.

A bittersweet memory play, we’re hosted by narrator Michael (Enda Reilly), who was raised by his single mother, spirited, irreverent Christina (Lauren McGinty) and her four sisters. Their parents dead, the eldest resident sibling and local school teacher, the prim and proper Kate (Erin Jones) is the de facto matriarch; family clown Maggie (Rebecca De La Cour) looks after the small family farm; and the quiet Agnes (Donna O’Regan) and simple-minded Rose (Áine Donnelly) earn money by knitting gloves.

The return of their brother Father Jack (Ian McGarrett), sent home from his mission in Uganda by his superiors, both causes and coincides with significant changes in their lives and position in their home village of Ballybeg—especially lending truth to the rumour that Jack was dismissed for “going native” and adapting, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a too familiar and accepting attitude of local custom and ritual. Industrialization is catching up with rural Ireland, and factory-made goods are putting handwork at risk. Ongoing, if not sporadic, visits from Michael’s father Gerry (Sean Gilheany), a Welsh wanderer turned gramophone salesman, give the family—especially Christina and Michael—rare and welcome glimpses of the possibility of hope for something better; and a brief respite from the dullness of their workaday lives and the stresses of making ends meet during the Depression.

The family’s individual and collective history is both merry and melancholy; and lives are forever changed by forces largely beyond their control. And while Michael acknowledges the hard times of struggle, sacrifice and loss, he takes heart from the good times the family shared together—the love, laughter and dancing around the Marconi wireless. The rhythms of life, love and changing times.

Lovely work from the cast in creating this intimate family story. Reilly’s Michael makes for an affable and animated host; and he’s especially adept at conjuring the wide-eyed, precocious and imaginative child Michael. De La Cour is a treat as the feisty jokester Maggie; using humour to cheer and diffuse tension, her glass-half-full perspective is also crucial to her own survival. O’Regan and Donnelly have a beautiful rapport as the BFF sisters, the unassuming, protective Agnes and the child-like, naive Rose, who both come to show there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to notions of romance. McGinty gives a well-rounded performance as the conflicted young mother Christina; the family beauty, and raising the love child of a man she hardly ever sees, Christina’s youth has been interrupted by the more pragmatic concerns of a single mother—and in a time and place that frowned upon women like her. In classic Irish matriarch fashion, Jones’s Kate says as much with a look or gesture as she does with a word; having missed on romance herself, Kate’s stern disposition also a masks a broken heart.

McGarrett gives a poignant performance as the sisters’ brother Father Jack; once the golden boy of the family and the village, Jack has returned, frail and barely recognizable, and hardly knowing his own hometown. And Gilheany gives a charming turn as Gerry; a man of the road who loves to love, Gerry means well, but has trouble with the follow-up.

With shouts to the design team for their evocative work in transporting us to this nostalgic Depression-era world of memory and family in rural Donegal, Ireland: Chandos Ross (set), Livia Pravato (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound).

Dancing at Lughnasa continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until November 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. Keep up with The Irish Players on Facebook and Twitter.

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Ghosts of the past reveal the sins of the Father in the haunting, sharply funny, compelling Omission

Andrea Irwin, Thomas O’Neill, Evan Walsh & Gillian Reed. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Bruce Peters.

 

Peter denied Jesus three times and yet became the Rock upon which the Catholic Church was built—its first Pope. Cardinal Matias Iglesias denies knowing three people from his past and he is a favourite to become the next Pope.

Alumnae Theatre Company explores sins of commission and omission in a time of civil and social conflict in Alice Abracen’s Omission, directed by Anne Harper.

It’s the eve of a papal conclave, and Canadian journalist Megan Gutierrez (Gillian Reed) visits the office of Latin American Cardinal Matias Iglesias (Thomas O’Neill), to interview him as part of a piece about the top candidates for the papacy. The jocular tone of their meeting turns adversarial when she asks him about three people: Angelo Flores, Laura Ballan-Kohn and Gabriel Mejia. While initially denying knowledge of any of them, when faced with accusations of complicity in the actions of a military junta, the Cardinal convinces Megan to stay and hear his side of the story. The ghosts from his past—General Angelo Flores (Lawrence Aronovitch), Professor Laura Ballan-Kohn (Andrea Irwin)  and Father Gabriel Mejia (Evan Walsh)—all materialize as he relates the events and relationships.

Keeping his head down and careful to not antagonize the ruling regime, Iglesias—a Bishop when these events began—is determined to protect his people from harm no matter what the cost. But civil conflict arrives on his doorstep when Ballan-Kohn, a long-time friend and confidante, begins to speak out against the witch hunt on certain political and philosophical books, and the students and teachers who own them are rounded up never to be seen again. And Mejia, who considers Iglesias a mentor, disobeys orders to avoid certain areas, where he’s been secretly administering to the hungry and dying—criminals and terrorists in the eyes of the regime. Afraid that his friends’ resistance is putting them in grave danger, Iglesias is unable to mollify Flores, a friend from childhood who now enforces the party line, describing the missing and murdered as having “left the country”—viewing all resistors as terrorists, and their absence a political boon.

Strong, committed performances from the entire cast in this story of confession, revelation and absolution. O’Neill, a former Archdiocese of Toronto altar boy, is an impressive presence as the ambitious Cardinal. As charming and affable as he is diplomatic and cunning, Iglesias knows how to play the political game—but when the game gets too close to home, will he still have the stomach to play it? Reed brings a great sense of mission and conflict to Megan; sharp-witted and relentless in her determination to discover the truth, Megan is also nervous, vulnerable and harbouring a secret of her own.

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Foreground: Andrea Irwin & Thomas O’Neill. Background: Gillian Reed, Lawrence Aronovitch & Evan Walsh. Costume design by Margaret Spence. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Bruce Peters.

Walsh gives young Father Gabriel a lovely aura of awkward, youthful drive. Naiveté and idealism mature with Gabriel’s earnest passion to do what is right, no matter how dangerous to his own well-being. Irwin is an unstoppable force as the mercurial, rambunctious and irreverent Professor Ballan-Kohn. Whip-smart, and possessing of a fiery spirit and courageous soul, Ballan-Kohn—whose parents are Holocaust survivors—knows what it means when good people do nothing. Aronovitch does a great job with the two lives of General Flores; doting new father, good-humoured friend and religiously observant, he is also a cool, detached military man who follows and gives deadly and life-altering orders without question. An extreme example, the General reminds us of the compartmentalized life that anyone can live.

Sin goes beyond the commission of bad deeds to include the omission of good deeds. But what about the role of environment and circumstance? For better or worse, we all do what we feel is right, and in our guts and power to do in the moment. At what point do confession and absolution constitute forgiveness? In the end, like Megan, we are left to our own judgement of these proceedings. And who among us is without sin.

With shouts to the design team for their work on creating this theatrical world, where souls from the past commune with those of the present to tell this story: Margaret Spence (costumes), Evelyn Clarke (props), Teodoro Dragonieri (set), Ali Berkok (sound) and Wes Babcock (lighting).

Ghosts of the past reveal the sins of the Father in the haunting, sharply funny, compelling Omission.

Omission continues on the Alumnae mainstage until February 3; advance tickets available online or at the door (cash only). Tickets are $25, with half-price tickets on Wednesdays and PWYC Sunday matinees.

 

Facing death with dignity, humour & love in the thoughtful, sharply funny, moving A Better Place

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Rachel Cairns, Catherine Gardner, Ian Ronningen & Kris Langille in A Better Place – photo by Bruce Peters

LilyRose Productions opened Ramona Baillie’s A Better Place, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, in the Factory Theatre Studio last night. Based on a true story, A Better Place takes us on the 14-month journey of a woman faced with a devastating medical diagnosis.

Stella Russo (Kris Langille) is an active 55-year-old who loves singing in her Catholic church choir and bowling in the community league. Then she learns that she has ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease)—a rapid degenerative neurological disease that attacks the nerves that control voluntary muscles—and her life, and perspective on death, changes drastically. There is no cure and she doesn’t have long to live.

As Stella works to cope with the side effects of chemo treatments and a body that’s no longer working properly, never knowing what’s going to go next and terrified of finding herself unable to breathe, her BFF Dee (Catherine Gardner), boyfriend Bill (Edward Heeley) and doctor daughter Kate (Rachel Cairns) must also come to terms with her ultimately fatal condition. Meanwhile, Kate is struggling with personal issues of her own; her focus on her work at the hospital has come at the expense of her marriage, leaving her musician husband Zack (Ian Ronningen) feeling abandoned.

When Stella decides she wants to die on her own terms, she encounters resistance from her neurologist Dr. Green (Jillian Rees-Brown), who insists she join a support group; and dogma from parish priest Father Perez (Isai Rivera Blas), who will withhold last rites and warns that she’ll forfeit her place in heaven. Her close friends and family have mixed feelings, and her young streetwise choir friend Chris (Ngabo Nabea) is willing to offer assistance, but even he’s only willing to go so far.

Nice work from the cast on this thought-provoking and poignant piece that doesn’t get too down on itself, with a script that’s infused with cheeky, at times dark, humour. Beyond various cast members merely schlepping furniture and props about, the staging has the ensemble gathering to assist in Stella’s transformation from health to disability.

Langille gives a marathon performance as Stella. Navigating the physical and emotional challenges of this devastating disease, Stella is a fighter who makes that final choice in the spirit of living with purpose and dying on her own terms.

Other stand-outs include Gardner’s wise-cracking Dee; a dear, loyal friend when times are tough, even the super positive, supportive Dee must come to terms with a sense of loss as Stella’s condition deteriorates. Cairns gives Kate a great sense of inner conflict; a surgeon who relies on logic and reason, she finds herself forced to feel tumultuous emotion as she braces herself for the inevitable death of her mother and works her way back into her marriage.

Ronningen brings a sweet, open-heartedness to Zack; supportive of Kate’s career, he’s troubled to find himself alone in their marriage—and he can only take so much isolation. And Nabea does a great job in two very different roles; as Chris, in a lovely two-hander scene with Stella as he realizes what she’s intending; and as the cynical bartender Rick, advising Zack to look long and hard at how Kate’s treating him.

With shouts to Rick Jones’ sound design, which features snippets of popular love songs played during the scene changes, with the song selections getting progressively more introspective and melancholy as the play progresses. And to stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin for keeping it all together and moving along from the booth.

Facing death with dignity, humour and love in the thoughtful, sharply funny and moving A Better Place.

A Better Place continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Dec 11; get your advance tix online or by calling 416-504-9971.

The run includes three special post-performance presentations:

Thurs, Dec 1: A panel discussion with lawyer Shelley Birenbaum and Dr. Fred Besik, moderated by Mardi Tindal, on the legality and morality of compassionate deaths.

Sun, Dec 4: Don Valley West MP Rob Oliphant, who is also Co-Chair of the House of Commons and Senate Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying, joins the director, playwright and cast for a talkback.

Wed, Dec 7: Q&A with the director, playwright and cast.