Dancing at Lughnasa, the latest production of ECHO Players has an ensemble that convincingly brings Brian Freil’s story to life.
Now on the stage at the Village Theatre in Qualicum Beach, the play is at once heartbreaking, poignant and uproariously funny.
Director Sue Murguly who has previously directed Educating Rita, Oleanna and Lettice and Lovage for ECHO Players, has assembled an impressive cast that includes seasoned as well as an actor new to the stage, all of whom make every moment of the play feel true, tender and fresh.
Ireland’s best loved playwright, Friel won a Tony Award for his masterpiece which is a bittersweet reflection on life in rural Ireland in the 1930’s.
Set in the summer of 1936 in a house in a remote part of County Donegal the five Mundy sisters live a simple life with older brother Jack, a missionary priest, and seven-year-old Michael.
The tale is a memory play where the now-adult Michael looks back at that summer and how the family’s world was threatened by change.
It was also the year Father Jack returned home after leaving Ireland 25 years earlier to minister to the members of a leper colony in Uganda.
The official reason for his return is ill health. However, upon closer examination, one can see he has gone a bit too native with those he has been tending.
The family gets by on Kate’s schoolteacher income and the little money Agnes and Rose make from knitting gloves by hand.
Barely able to make ends meet, the sisters acquire their first wireless radio and dream of happiness and love.
Their stomping and whirling to Marconi’s staticky tunes is as wild as the Ugandan rituals brought home by the renegade missionary played by Alistair McVey.
Father Jack is deeply troubled and McVey is both sad and funny in his convincing portrayal of the priestly brother.
With an especially striking performance is Vicki Barta who plays the oldest of the sisters; the inflexible, iron-willed, primly efficient schoolteacher Kate.
There is sterling support from Kelly Barnum who has a strong performance as the insubordinate cigarette smoking Maggie.
In one scene where both women convey some heartbreaking moments, as Kate frets about the future and Maggie is overcome thinking about a friend from the past the two actors own the stage.
Melody Barta portrays the simple sister Rose with a combination of charm and strength.
Geoffrey Moddle plays a fly-by-night lover and deadbeat father with effortless gaiety.
Althea Rose, is believable as Michael’s un-wed mother Chris, radiating both hope and scepticism when Michael’s dad says he wants to settle down with her.
When Chris is visited by Gerry, the father of her child who abandoned her, Rose is convincing as she turns to putty in Moddle’s arms as he attempts to charm her back into his life.
Agnes, the caring middle sister is played by Shaleigh Spence who does a great job in making the audience believe in her character.
Spence who goes to Kwalikum Secondary School may be the youngest and least experienced member of the cast but she held her own among the seasoned veterans she shared the stage with and her future in the theatre is looking bright.
Much of the play’s joy lies in its use of dance and music and watching the women dance is to see their characters expressed physically.
Barta as Rose dances with childlike glee and Spence as Agnes is just as great in her dance with the smooth moving Gerry.
Completing the superb cast is Don Harper whose experience on the stage is demonstrated in his confident performance. He plays the adult Michael who narrates the story through his memory. As a seven year old he is represented invisibly in scenes with his mother and aunts in which they address the love child while Harper stands off to the side and responds.
The production expertly conveys that summer on the brink in a heartfelt, emotional staging by director Murguly. It captures the tensions between desire and duty, past and present, and family and individuality.
The production also showcases the talents of the various members of the community who have created an authentic setting of a 1930s rural Irish cottage. The skills of Ian Taylor and Mick Banks in building replica furniture are apparent. Every last detail has been considered in the busy kitchen making the audience feel right at home as they take a glimpse into the lives of the Mundy sisters.
Lesley McVey is producing the play which will be taken to the North Island Zone Theatre Festival in Courtenay May 18 after its run on the Village Theatre stage.
Dancing at Lughnasa runs until April 22 at the Village Theatre in Qualicum Beach 110 West 2nd Ave. For further information or tickets visit www.echoplayers.ca or phone 250-752-3522.