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Dancing Through City Theater Company's 30th Anniversary Season Closer, "Dancing at Lughnasa"

Sunday, April 21, 2024


Jeff Gudzune writes book reviews for a variety of publishers and is active in community theater. Since 2013, Jeff has owned and operated Matrix Notary Service.


City Theater Company's cast of Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography.

No one does drama, peppered with light humor, better than the Irish. Lives of toil, tragedy, and the struggle for upward mobility are made easier by finding the humor in life. It’s a reality that refreshes in a world of 24-hour news cycles foreshadowing international conflict, political upheavals, and the possibility of economic catastrophe.


City Theater Company's production of Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by Mary Catherine Kelley, is the personification of Irish Drama. It’s not devastating, but it is stark and evocative. The story is based on playwright Brian Friel's own reflections of life in rural Ireland in the summer of 1936. The eclectic extended family members have their own story to tell, seasoned with an equal mix of humor and sorrow.


The action takes place in the Mundy household, a small cottage in the town of Ballybeg during the summer of 1936. The narration is provided by an adult Michael Mundy (Daryan Borys), who also speaks in the voice of his 7-year-old self during interactions with his family. Michael appears offstage as an adult, and the cast interacts with the air around a spotlight representing the child.


Michael is unaware of the tempest brewing within his family, the drama that will crescendo as the play moves through its acts. He only wants to enjoy the remaining weeks of summer before school starts and to find some peace in a house filled with women — five unmarried sisters Kate (Kerry Kristine McElrone), Agnes (Jessica Jordan), Rose (Kate Brennan), Maggie (Jennifer Youngblood), and Christina (Éibhleann Clyne), Michael's mother.


The presence of his famous Uncle Jack (Paul McElwee), a Roman Catholic priest who has just returned from Uganda, adds a bit of mystery to the boy’s life. To further complicate matters, his wayward father, Gerry (Aidan McDonald), suddenly arrives to court his mother and purchase the boy's affection.


The Mundy family is a tapestry of latent desires and buried trauma. Kate, the oldest, is a schoolteacher and devout Catholic who is leery of the pagan themes of the approaching festival of Lughnasa — a Gaelic celebration marking the start of the harvest. Anges and Rose knit gloves but find their way of life endangered by industrial competition. Maggie and Michael’s mother, Christina, tend the house and reflect on what their lives could have been. Jack struggles to express himself and often wanders the house attempting to give voice to his muddled thoughts. Things are further complicated by the arrival of Michael’s father Gerry—a wanderer with big promises and very little follow through.


The talented cast conveys the emotions of the piece through their expressions and body language, as well as spot-on Irish accents. The musical accompaniment adds a sad tone to the actions presented on the stage.


Among the central themes of the show are regret over the path not taken, the struggle for survival, and challenges to faith. Father Jack returns from missionary work to find his spiritual outlook somewhat changed. Social Scientists would call this "going native," but he has come to realize that not all roads lead to Rome in the spiritual sense. This concerns Kate, whose devotion to her faith leaves her fearful for her brother’s soul. Anges and Rose are forced to work long hours in the glove factory to support the family as Kate is forced into early retirement. Through it all, they remain united. There is conflict, but it is wholesome. It’s family.


Dancing at Lughnasa is a study of Irish culture and family life. The idyllic community in which the players live exists in the space between two worlds. There is the strict Irish Catholic heritage, devoted to the tenets of the religion and its firm dogma and the local traditions that may not be in line with that faith. The weight of the world in which they live is evident in the physical expressions of the actors as they portray a kaleidoscope of emotions on stage. One could not help but be taken away from the moment.


While each performer brought their heart and soul to the role, the standout was Jennifer Youngblood’s embodiment of fun-loving life-spirit Maggie. Delivering stark, often comedic commentary, she serves as a bridge between the more serious Kate and the rest of the family. Equally impressive was Kate Brennan’s Rose, whose disability does not hamper her desire to find love.


Remaining performances of Dancing at Lughnasa are Sunday, 4/21, matinee (2:00pm) and Wednesday, 4/24 through Saturday, 4/27 (all 8:00pm). Tickets are available online at City-Theater.org. Seating is mostly on risers, but ADA seating is available by alerting the House Manager. City Theater Company performs in the Wings Black Box of The Delaware Contemporary, located at 200 S. Madison Street, near the Wilmington waterfront.

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