After a restless period of uncertainty, Open Fist Theatre Company is on a roll, clearly hitting its stride with a recent series of smashing shows—Under Milk Wood, Anna in the Tropics, and now Dancing at Lughnasa. Brian Friel’s award winning play is set in Ireland, County Donegal, in the small rural village of Ballybeg around the time of Lughnasa, an ancient Celtic harvest festival.
The year is 1936, and with grit, determination, and abundant love, the five Mundy sisters– Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose and Chris–eke out a frugal existence. Only the eldest, Kate (Open Fist Artistic Director Martha Demson), a schoolteacher, has a decent paying job. She tends to be stern with her younger siblings as she feels the weight of responsibility. Maggie (Lane Allison), a cheerful sort, does the cooking. She loves her Woodbine cigarettes, her single indulgence. Agnes (Ann Marie Wilding), taciturn and contemplative, has a far away affect and Rose (Sandra Kate Burck), who works with Agnes hand-stitching gloves is “special.” She is impulsive due to a developmental disability. Chris (Caroline Klidonas), who also has no job, does the ironing and other chores. Her mood swings as might be expected of a woman with a seven-year-old love child named Michael.
The adult Michael (David Shofner) introduces the play and narrates from time to time as necessary. With grace, polish, and irresistible charisma, Mr. Shofner guides the events of the story, never appearing, of course, as his seven-year-old self. Adding to the familial stew, Father Jack (Christopher Cappiello), the Mundy sister’s brother, is a Roman Catholic priest back from twenty-five years in Africa were he served in a leper colony. His time there has affected him. Words do not come easy for him, and there is evidence that he may “have gone native.”
Michael’s father, Gerry (Scott Roberts), is a guy who shows up from time to time. This time he shows up as gramophone salesman, dressed sportingly with nice duds, a fine pair of shoes, and a hat tilted back. He is a slick talker able to jolly up Chris and wipe her frown away with affection and a little bit of dancing. He plans to look for adventure, signing up for the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Under the superb direction of Barbara Schofield, this cast of seasoned pros crafts a performance that goes straight to the heart, with affecting joy and sadness. The characters are all thoroughly grounded, rounded, and nuanced, each individual character unforgettable. My favorite moment in the show is when the sisters’ unpredictable wireless radio that sports the pet name, “Marconi,” comes to life and the sisters start to dance. And they dance and dance. Irish dancing. And finally the stern eldest sister, Kate, joins in and dances her heart out. It is a wild, thrilling moment that goes on and on. They become Dionysian maenads.
The production is handsomely staged and benefits from the excellent work of scenic designer James Spencer, with construction by scenic builder Jan Munroe, lighting designer Matt Richter, composer and sound designer Tim Labor, costume designer Mylette Nora and props by Bruce Dickinson & Ina Shumaker. The choreographer is Jason Gorman, and the dialect coach is Deborah Ross Sullivan. The stage is masterfully managed by Jennifer Palumbo.
The Open Fist Theatre Company’s production of Dancing at Lughnasa runs through August 18 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles.