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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Fond & fierce dreams in poignant 73H Productions’/Howland Company’s modern-day reflection on The Glass Menagerie

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Hannah Spear in The Glass Menagerie – photos by Yannick Anton

73H Productions, with the support of The Howland Company, opened its production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by Philip McKee, in the Theatre Centre Incubator space last night.

Set in St. Louis, Amanda Wingfield (Tracey Hoyt) lives in a cramped apartment with her two young adult children Tom (James Graham) and Laura (Hannah Spear). Mr. Wingfield, famous and infamous for his charm and grin, is long gone – not dead, but absent; a fifth character in this story, present only in a grinning photograph. This is a memory play, narrated by Tom and featuring milestone moments in the family’s history. Painfully shy and incapacitated with fear, Laura has dropped out of school; preferring to live in a world of old music and glass animals. Concerned for her daughter’s future, Amanda, a displaced member of privileged, old southern society, hatches a plan to have Tom invite one of his warehouse co-workers (Jim, the Gentleman Caller, played by Samer Salem) over for dinner in the hopes of sparking a romance and eventual marriage for Laura. Meanwhile, Tom is working on a scheme of his own, with plans to break free from a life of ennui and movie house escape, and into a journey of real adventure.

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James Graham with Hannah Spear (l) & Tracey Hoyt (r)

Lovely work from the cast in this intimate portrait of desperate dreaming family life. Graham brings a melancholy tinged with a wistful, and at times dark, sense of whimsy to his performance as Tom. A philosophical introvert, Tom’s a ticking time bomb of frustration; burdened with being the family breadwinner, he’s torn between taking care of his mother and sister, and making a life he can call his own. Hoyt’s Amanda is a complex combination of old southern gentility and ruthless realism. The life and world Amanda’s come to live in are both foreign and a step down for her socially speaking; disillusioned and desperate for a secure future, Amanda is a well-meaning nag with permanent worry lines on her forehead. And we see how rooted she is in the past as she slips into girlish coquetry when Jim arrives.

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Tracey Hoyt & Samer Salem

Spear brings a lovely sense of fragility and solitude to Laura; a painfully shy and delicate soul who dares to dream. A creative and good-humoured introvert with low self-esteem, Laura is both genuine and awkward – and her failings are largely in her mind. Salem gives Jim a high-energy, charismatic and athletic spark. As Laura’s polar opposite, Jim’s high self-esteem – perhaps a bit too high – is tempered by a charm and sincerity; a man who appears to have peaked in high school, he is “disappointed but not discouraged,” and spends his time after work on self-improvement courses.

All are disappointed but not discouraged – to some degree, at least – but, as Amanda points out, despite one’s best efforts “Things have a way of turning out so badly.”

Keeping the script intact, but setting the scene in modern-day America – as well as offering a new take on the menagerie – this production of the Williams classic finds the past aptly mirrored in the present; bringing this story of ennui, economic struggle and dreams of a better life into current focus. When Laura plays her father’s old records, it’s on a CD player; and, beyond a mere collection of acquired knickknacks, the menagerie is her own creation. Like the mirror ball at the Paradise Dance Hall across the alley, the animals are covered in pieces of mirrored glass – and those who look upon Laura’s creations are reflected in them.

Staged in the round in the more intimate Incubator space at the Theatre Centre, the audience really gets a fly-on-the-wall perspective of this family drama. Shouts to set/costume designer Adriana Bogaard, and lighting designer Jareth Li for their work in creating this world.

Fond and fierce dreams in 73H Productions’/The Howland Company’s poignant modern-day reflection on The Glass Menagerie.

The Glass Menagerie continues at the Theatre Centre Incubator until September 11. You can get advance tix online; strongly recommended, as it’s an intimate space and opening was sold out.

In the meantime, check out the trailer, created by Daniel Maslany: