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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Love letter to the universe – The De Chardin Project @ Theatre Passe Muraille

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Cyrus Lane & Maev Beaty – photo by Michael Cooper

“It’s a love story about the origins of the universe.”The De Chardin Project playwright Adam Seybold

When you enter the mainspace of Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) to see Adam Seybold’s Dora Mavor Moore-winning play The De Chardin Project, the space has been re-imagined, with the audience positioned around three sides of a central raised rectangular playing space, framed – like a box without sides. The colours red and black predominate; a single bare light bulb hangs in the centre and several focused beams of light shine onto the floor from above. Centre stage, a man in a black suit lies on his stomach. Still. An otherworldly soundtrack plays, like wind chimes – industrial and celestial at the same time. And something else. Wind? Water? Both. The music crescendos into a thunderstorm. The man stirs. And rises, wondering where he is, the soundscape evoking the haze of emerging consciousness.

Directed by Alan Dilworth, The De Chardin Project mines the life and experiences of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), geologist, paleontologist and Jesuit priest, a man devoted to the study of rocks and bones in a passionate effort to understand the origins of the universe. A man of God and a man of science, his refusal to renounce evolution theory – and reconcile it with creationism – gained negative attention from Rome and forced his order to exile him to China, where he participated in the discovery of the Peking Man. Seybold’s script excavates the personal for the universal – and no matter where you stand on the origins of the universe, the result is a fascinating and emotional experience.

De Chardin (Cyrus Lane) is dying from a cerebral hemorrhage, a broken tea cup on the floor the only artifact of his life in the space he now occupies. He is like Schrodinger’s cat in the box – both alive and dead. From a trap door in the floor, a woman appears. She is his Guide (Maev Beaty), who sets out to usher him through seminal moments of his life in order to piece it back together.

Lane is luminous as de Chardin, scholarly and confident but not arrogant, quick-witted and driven. We see a man full of love – for God, the universe. Everything. Lonely in the space between creationism and evolution theory, and sad that he cannot touch that which he seeks – yet optimistic in the face of rejection and misunderstanding, even as he struggles to be so. Beaty is lovely as the Guide, cryptic but warm and open. Also tasked with playing various characters from de Chardin’s life, she gives a remarkable performance throughout, portraying people of various ages, genders and nationalities. As de Chardin’s friend and colleague Lucille, an American artist, she is beautifully sharp and irreverently funny. Like de Chardin, she is full of longing, but more grounded in the physical present than reaching through time and space for that which she cannot grasp.

The four elements figure prominently in this production – especially fire. Fire as an object of fear, transformation, destruction, illumination, desire and symbol. The spark of creation. The elements are incorporated into the remarkable set design, with various trap doors housing props, furniture and even spaces: an excavation site, a pitcher of water, a candle. Shouts to Lorenzo Savoini (production design) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound design).

The De Chardin Project is a profoundly moving and human exploration of faith and science, love and the search for meaning in the universe.

Speaking as a recovering Catholic, I was left both moved and intrigued, my eyes wet and mind full. But that’s just me – you’ll have to go see for yourself. Let me know what you think. In the meantime, take a look at some behind the scenes moments here:

The De Chardin Project continues its run at the TPM mainspace until December 14. Go see this.