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.

Southern Gothic meets The X-Files (or does it?) in creepy, edgy thriller Bug

Poster art/design by Jonathan Kociuba

Toronto just got some more Tracy Letts Southern Gothic goodness, this time with a StudioBLR & Kid Switchblade indie production of Bug, directed by Jamieson Child, and opening last night at the Super Wonder Theatre (aka Gallery).

In Agnes’s shitty hotel room somewhere in Oklahoma, Agnes (Lynne Rafter) and her friend Ronnie (Jaclyn Nobrega) shoot the breeze and party with Ronnie’s friend Peter (Todd Preston). Agnes has been receiving multiple crank phone calls, with nothing but breathing on the other end, and suspects it’s her ex Jerry (Luke Gallo), who’s fresh out of two years in jail. Ronnie and her partner are trying to get custody of their kid, and when she leaves and Peter decides to stay, she vouches for him to Agnes. He’s a quiet one, that Peter. Quiet and nervous. But he and Agnes strike up a rapport and she offers him a place to stay, on the floor of her room. The relationship grows and they start to open up to each other, showing the other what’s deep inside. Only, for Peter, it’s not the usual life tribulations. An army soldier gone AWOL from a medical facility, he believes the government is experimenting on him. And his arrival has coincided with a bug infestation in Agnes’s room. Agnes, who is dealing with the heart-crushing loss of her young son who went missing 10 years ago, plus unwanted visits from the abusive Jerry, doesn’t know what to believe. When Dr. Sweet (Ian McGarrett) arrives, claiming he wants to take care of Peter and keep him safe, things start to make sense, but then – this being a Tracy Letts play – it all goes to hell pretty damn quick and hard.

Great work from the entire cast on this bizarre tale of conspiracy theory and paranoid delusion – and, like Agnes, the audience is constantly trying to sort out just what the hell is going on. Rafter gives a beautifully nuanced performance as the damaged Agnes; fragile and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, she’s checked out of life and into this run-down hotel room, waiting tables to get by. Longing for connection and tenderness, she’s relieved yet terrified about her newfound relationship with Peter. This is Preston’s theatrical debut– and a damn good one at that – as he changes up from music performance (fronting Toronto indie band I Hate Todd) to acting. He turns up the heat on Peter nicely throughout; quiet and child-like at first, his anxiety presents as painful shyness, turning more hyperactive as he gets comfortable with Agnes in his new surroundings – and, like her, he’s longing for connection. Extremely intelligent, but obsessive and manic in his pursuit of the truth about the bugs, there’s a demented common sense to his theories. Really nice work from the supporting cast: Nobrega gives Ronnie a tough, but tender quality; loyal and extremely protective of Agnes, she’s a no-bullshit, direct gal who knows when she’s done all she can. Gallo brings a cagey, menacing edge to Jerry; an abusive brute with an overblown sense of ownership, he blames Agnes for the loss of their son Lloyd even as he uses her for money and as a punching bag. McGarrett is a somewhat spooky puzzle as Dr. Sweet; the doctor seems affable and harmless enough, even helpful – but there’s something off about him. He’s hiding something, but is it what Peter is accusing him of?

With shouts to the design team for creating the seedy, spooky ambiance: director Child (lighting), actor Preston (set design/construction), Michael Zahorak (music/sound) and Drac Child (makeup/costume coordinator).

Southern Gothic meets The X-Files (or does it?) in creepy, edgy thriller Bug.

Bug continues at the Super Wonder Theatre (aka Gallery) until May 27. Ticket info here; it’s an intimate space at the back of the gallery, so you might want to book ahead to avoid disappointment.

In the meantime, check out the show’s teaser vid: