Story: Michael Evans was 7 years old when his uncle, "Father Jack" Mundy, returned to his native Ireland after decades of missionary work with lepers as a priest in Africa. Jack contracted malaria and was sent home to his family's cottage on the outskirts of the village of Ballybeg in County Donegal to convalesce. At least, that was the official reason given by the Catholic Church overseeing the mission.
Adult Michael recalls that it was the month of August 1936, at the start of the Celtic harvest season known as Lughnasa, when Uncle Jack came home “to die” in the cozy family home shared by Michael and Jack’s five maiden sisters. While they’re happy to see Jack, it soon becomes apparent that he’s adopted the ways of the African natives who were in his care for so long.
Eldest sister Kate, a staunch and starchy Catholic, is the breadwinner of the Mundy clan as a local schoolteacher, supplemented by the meager money brought in by quiet sister Agnes and simple-minded Rose with their knitting, income now threatened by a new, nearby factory doing similar work.
Irrepressible sister Maggie takes care of the household chores, assisted by youngest sister Chris, who had borne Michael out of wedlock with a dashing young Welshman named Gerry Evans. Gerry has a penchant for showing up at the Mundy home once a year or so. He’s good-looking, charming and amiable, but unfortunately he’s not much at holding a job or being reliable.
Still, when Gerry arrives in that fateful month, Chris once again is swept off her feet by his love for dancing and life itself. She knows better than to accept his latest proposal of marriage, though, seeing him for the rolling stone that he is. Gerry, who is an unsuccessful salesman of gramophones and a failed dance instructor, tinkers with the family’s erratic radio, which plays Irish folk music and dance tunes when it’s working.
Life is simple, quiet and rather unfulfilling for the Mundy sisters but they get by and carry on, feeding on their daydreams and hopes for a brighter future or wistful memories of fleeting happiness in the past. As bleak as their lives are, however, Michael looks back on the cruel circumstances of that long-ago Lughnasa which harvested his family’s fading hopes.
Highlights: Mustard Seed Theatre’s 10th season comes to a conclusion with a heart-rending rendition of Brian Friel’s haunting Irish drama, featuring superb performances by an ensemble cast given affecting direction by Gary Barker.
Other Info: Friel’s effort garnered Olivier and Tony Awards for Best Play in its London and Broadway versions following its 1990 premiere in Dublin. It’s a ‘memory play,’ with the adult Michael narrating from the side of the stage a la To Kill a Mockingbird or The Glass Menagerie. Its melancholy tone more resembles the latter work than the former in that regard.
The stifling, lonely lives of the Mundy sisters provide rich opportunities for accomplished performers to cast the characters in their own interpretations. Such is the case with Mustard Seed’s presentation, in which Barker allows Friel’s endearing dialogue to move the story forward at a leisurely but never languid pace.
The technical setting is immediately evocative, giving an audience access to the Mundy environment before the play even begins. Kyra Bishop’s scenic design is accentuated by a handsome backdrop painted by Cameron Tesson which takes one on a path into the Irish hillside from the Mundy cottage that sits in the foreground. Moving from stage right to stage left Bishop places an outdoor area where Michael plays, a door to the home and a working area that ushers into a living room of sorts with a kitchen at back.
Michael Sullivan’s lighting is poetic in its own right, bathing the hillside in a rainbow of colors and the house in more utilitarian shades for various times of day. Laura Skroska’s props add to the look and feel of the times with the boxy ‘Marconi,’ an ironing board, etc., while Jane Sullivan’s costumes capture the diverse personalities of the sisters, from Kate’s rigid appearance to Maggie’s somewhat bohemian attire, as well as Gerry’s dandy duds.
Zoe Sullivan’s sound design is a blend of ’30s band music and spirited Irish jigs, which the sisters respond to, ironically, with their own natural ‘pagan’ moves that are carefully choreographed by Helen Gannon to represent their feelings as well as their bodies. You can thank Nancy Bell for the rich Irish dialects, notably Michael’s as spoken by Jim Butz.
This is truly an ensemble effort, with each of the players showing her or his ability to integrate artistic energy into an ingratiating performance. Butz sets the tone of the work with his forlorn countenance as he recalls the last happy moments of the Mundy brood, but also is delightful as Michael the lad, squealing excitedly in conversations with the adults, none of whom ever looks at him directly but instead speak to a location on the set.
Amy Loui renders Kate with an agonizingly repressed iron will, existing by the book of the Catholic Church rather than living freely, wavering ever so slightly. In sharp contrast is Kelley Weber’s portrayal of Maggie, the free spirit who wonders what might have been when hearing of the faraway life of a schoolmate and who shows Michael what fun it can be to play.
Michelle Hand does wonders as Rosie, conveying the protected sister’s simple ways with a face that shows wonder without comprehension, a considerable feat, and speaking just a tad differently than her sisters. Leslie Wobbe brings out the aching loneliness of Agnes, who comes to life when invited by Gerry to dance with him. At that same moment, Jennifer Theby Quinn fills Christine’s face with jealousy and hurt, while at other times she instills Chris with the girlish love she still holds for her Welshman.
Gary Glasgow and Richard Strelinger complete the cast as the confused and gone astray Father Jack and as the good-hearted but irresponsible Gerry, respectively. The men here clearly aren’t strong personalities, requiring care and cultivation.
Dancing at Lughnasa is a wondrously written yarn tenderly treated by Mustard Seed, with devoted direction and impeccable performances which affect every corner of an Irish Catholic heart and beyond.
Play: Dancing at Lughnasa
Company: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: April 20-23, 27-30
Tickets: $30-$35 (or Pay with a Can/Pay What You Can on Thursdays); contact www.mustardseedtheatre.com or 719-8060
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb