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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Toronto Fringe: A powerful, intimate, darkly funny examination of the nature of art & personal validation in Bakersfield Mist

ytheatre Collective explores the nature of art and the human need for validation in its powerful, intimate and darkly funny Toronto Fringe production of Stephen Sachs’ Bakersfield Mist, directed by David Eden and running in the Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church Chapel Room.

Based on the true story of Teri Horton and a thrift shop find, Bakersfield Mist takes us to the trailer park home of bartender Maude Gutman (Marie Carriere Gleason) and her meeting with renowned New York art historian Lionel Percy (Thomas Gough), who’s been tasked with authenticating a painting Maude found in a thrift store.

What’s interesting about Maude’s dogged determination to have this work verified as an important American Master work is that it’s not about the money—it’s about the validation. She is deeply concerned about authenticity and personal validation; and this is something she has in common with Lionel, whose stringent standards of professionalism and honesty are the hallmarks of his work.

Hard-drinking, tough-talking and down-home friendly, Maude is the polar opposite of the sharp-pressed, formal and aloof Lionel—but as their meeting continues, they learn they have more in common than they could have ever imagined in that they are both fastidious, proud, stubborn—and haunted and troubled.

What makes art—and people—important? And who is to judge?

Bakersfield Mist continues in the Trinity-St. Paul’s Chapel until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times.

Queen Milli of Galt a charming, touching Canadian fairytale love story

It’s been a while since I visited The Village Playhouse in Toronto’s Bloor West Village neighbourhood – and last night brought me out to see my friend Victoria Shepherd’s latest directing gig for Gary Kirkham’s play Queen Milli of Galt.

The play was inspired by a true Canadian story: Millicent Milroy, a retired teacher in Galt, Ontario (now Cambridge), caused quite a stir when she had a tombstone made, the inscription describing herself as the wife of King Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor. Bookended with short scenes outside her family home in 1972, where a young journalist visits in an attempt to get her story (shortly after Edward’s death), the play transports the audience back into 1919, the year that Edward – then a young Prince of Wales – was taking a train tour of Canada, including small-town Ontario. The meeting is accidental and the Prince, who introduces himself with his Christian name David, and Milli initially despise each other. And, of course – since this is a love story – the sparring turns into respect, friendship and more.

Shepherd found a lovely cast for this production: Lydia Monet (Milli) and Luke Marty (doing double duty as the journalist and Edward) have lovely chemistry as the young lovers, and it’s great fun to watch as serious, small-town schoolteacher Milli and cheeky playboy royal David find their mutual revulsion transform into friendship and love. Anne McDougall is adorably sweet as Milli’s enthusiastic church lady mother Mrs. Milroy, while David Eden gives a lovely layered performance Edward’s wry-witted, but amiable personal secretary Godfrey, and Caitlin Robson brings some big-city, modern girl dazzle as Milli’s friend, actress Mona.

Those of you who’ve been to the Village know that it’s a bit of a tricky set-up – the small rectangular stage with a support column at the down right corner (dubbed “Andrew”), with audience seated in an L-shaped arrangement around it. Set designer Alexis Chubb did a lovely job of realizing the worlds of the two main characters, with David’s tour train suite stage right (where images were projected on the back wall to evoke time and place, as well as the characters’ thoughts and memories), and the front garden and front door of Milli’s house stage left. Minimal furniture/set pieces for optimal playing space; for scenes taking place elsewhere, including a state ball, the full stage was taken as the new environment – nice staging by director Shepherd on this challenging stage. Shouts as  well to costume designer Theresa Arneaud for the fabulous period togs and John Stuart Campbell for the evocative soundtrack, which included both popular tunes of the period and thematic music for scene changes.

Queen Milli of Galt runs until February 2 – ticket reservations are recommended as this show is been very popular (I tried to book the first Sunday matinée and it was already sold out).

Wanna know more about what it’s about? Check out the production’s video, which features Shepherd, Monet and Robson: