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Review: DANCING AT LUGHNASA at City Theatre

Runs through April 27

By: Greer Firestone Apr. 20, 2024

photo by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography

Celebrating its 30th year as Delaware’s off-Broadway theatre, City Theatre delivers DANCING IN LUGHNASA, a stunning tour de force in ensemble acting, direction (Mary Catherine Kelley), linguistics/dialect (Michael Toner), scenic design (Rick Neidig) and every musical and technical aspect imaginable. The production was greeted with a Standing O opening night; a deserving distinction indeed.

LUGHNASA won the Tony for Best Play in 1992.

It is a memory play, narrated by the adult Michael Adams (Daryan Borys), recounting the summer in his aunts’ cottage when he was seven years old. The play takes place in late summer, the time of Lughnasa, the Celtic harvest festival. It reveals a heartbreaking ‘harvest’ for the 5 Mundy sisters, none of whom are married. Poverty and unfulfillment of lives are the perpetual leitmotif.

How did Director Kelley and the 5 sisters, Rose (Kate Brennan), Christina (Eibhleann Cylne), Agnes (Jessica Jordan), Kate (Kerry Kristine McElrone) and Maggie (Jennifer Youngblood) plumb into the lives of these characters to make us believe them so passionately? Was it their own Irish heritage? Hell, my grandmother was born in County Cork and I once took my life in my hands by kissing the Blarney Stone, but that certainly did not give Aisle Say the insight on how to project ‘destitute, dirt-poor Irish’ with the intensity and integrity of these women, and for that matter, the entire cast.

Observing the last names of the entire cast, after the show I jokingly asked Jennifer Youngblood if I might change her name to O’Youngblood for this review. She pointed to her husband. “No need. My maiden name is Ryan”!

To gain perspective, I asked director Kelley, a true Irish lass. For starters, her mother was one of 5 sisters. Fervent Catholicism and adherence to its rituals was part of her growing up. One would imagine she imbued this upbringing to the cast at rehearsals.

Two men round out the cast. One is Gerry (a Puck-like Aidan McDonald). Think a Welsh Harold Hill with less sincerity. He is father to Michael the narrator, but never bothered to marry Christina, even though she is still smitten. Gerry shows up unannounced and unrepentant, filling Christina’s mind with his next flimflam; selling gramophones this week, joining the Spanish Civil War the next.

Brother Jack (a terrific Paul McElwee) has returned this summer from 25 years as a missionary in a Ugandan leprosy colony. He is suffering from malaria, tends to look confused and gazes into space in a world of his own. To the consternation of Kate, Jack has not only surrendered Catholic values but also embraces paganism. Laments Kate, the backbone of the Mundy sisters, “He’s gone native. He’s not our Jack anymore.”

In over 40 years of reviewing, Aisle Say suggests this is one of the strongest ensemble casts I have had the privilege to cover. UD Rep Ensemble comes to mind. They are Equity. City Theatre is not.

Friel wrote gravitas in every character. Never once did anyone break. Never once did anyone miss a beat on the beatific Irish brogue. This cast communicated as much with their eyes, body language and expressions as they did with their dialogue.

The stage is a black box. The set breaks down into the impoverished house interior and the courtyard. Designer Neidig created a faux cobblestone on the latter that appears real. His eye for detail in the kitchen included a pot belly stove and half trusses at the top of the flats to give reality to the interior. Lighting Designer Jason Burns created dramatic spots, especially in the courtyard scenes when the kitchen turned black. Set and lights are characters in a production as are the actors.

Photographer Joe Del Tufo added dramatic pictures.

DANCING AT LUGHNASA – a short run. Ends April 27

Also, check out Fearless Improv. The group is fearlessly hysterical.



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