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REVIEW: Dancing at Lughnasa (City Theater Company, Wilmington, DE)

A heartfelt production of the Irish classic.


City Theater Company (CTC), billed as “Delaware’s Off-Broadway”, has a tendency and reputation for doing “in your face” works that tend to push the boundaries of conventional theatre and surprise audiences. Thus, audiences may be surprised to see them buck that reputation by producing a streamlined, elegant production of a renowned play. Thankfully, the current offering of Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa is a triumph in many ways: a wonderfully restrained production that overcomes the occasional script issue to make a heartwarming and engaging performance, proving that CTC can excel at multiple types of theatrical experiences. Here, the strong performances, interesting staging and an effectively simple set allow this show to flourish and dance.

They’re Irish

Brian Friel’s semi-autobiographical play was originally presented in 1990, to wide acclaim. The play tells the story of the Mundy sisters in Ireland, over the course of one summer in 1936. The sisters struggle with their place within the community they inhabit, tests of their faith, the return of their elder brother who is deeply changed, and simply surviving during the turn of the industrial revolution. The story is framed as a memory from Michael, the son of the youngest sister Christina, who recounts to the audience this tale, and interacts with his memories throughout.


What is surprising about this play is how little dramatic action there is. While the sisters have plenty of engaging discussion, there aren't many active events that happen within the play, setting a serene atmospheric tone. There are a few exceptions, notably at the top of the second act, but this is a show that expects its audience to listen closely and invest in the characters just existing, for that is where the joys of the script lie. The dialogue that Friel has crafted feels effortlessly natural while also being at times profound and moving. It’s there where the strength of the script flourishes. There are occasional structure issues, primarily in the second act, when Michael gives updates on where certain characters' stories will end. This obviously feels like a natural end to the story, however the show then proceeds with more scenes and another final monologue from Michael. This almost “fake out” ending is a little frustrating, but not enough to ruin the storytelling.


Aidan McDonald (Gerry) and Jessica Jordan (Agnes) in City Theater Company's 2024 Production of Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography.

They’re Dancing

Upon entering the Black Box at the Delaware Contemporary, the fictional world of Ballybeg, Ireland is instantly brought to life by the effective set design by Rick Neidig. The house and yard of the Mundy sisters is nicely crafted to invoke their class and stature in life. They’re not wealthy, constantly trying to make ends meet, and the set utilizes the close quarters and cramped living space to full effect: highlighting the characters’ feelings of being trapped, while also accentuating their closeness to one another emotionally as well as physically. Costumes by Pierre’s and Lighting by Jason Burns help support the feeling of stress and scraping by that the family is experiencing.


Mary Catherine Kelley serves as director, and she understands the world that this play takes place in, utilizing that knowledge to stage it all in a way that is beautifully naturalistic. There’s not much artifice within the confines of this world, and Kelly channels that through her direction as well as the performances she’s nurtured with the cast. All of the sisters work effortlessly together, and do feel like an actual family. They all compliment each other well, with Kate Brennan as Rose and Jennifer Youngblood as Maggie being two of the standouts. Brennan’s Rose is remarkably wide eyed and innocent, while also having arguably the strongest backbone in the entire family. Youngblood’s Maggie is viper quick and rather funny, often diffusing the tension with a wise cracking remark or smirk. Credit must also go to Daryan Borys as Michael. He is a natural storyteller that instantly draws attention and makes the audience feel at ease as the story unfolds. His shifts between his younger and current self are very well done, punctuating various moments of the show remarkably well. In addition, while his staging off to the side of the action highlights his removal from the events taking place (so that he can tell the story), his performance is so layered and natural that his presence is still felt on stage with the rest of the cast.


Jennifer Youngblood (Maggie) and Daryan Borys (Michael) in City Theater Company's 2024 Production of Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography.

There is a lot of praise to be heaped onto CTC’s production of Dancing at Lughnasa. There is an elegance in the choice to present this show at a time when audiences aren’t quite returning to the theatre as they were before the pandemic, as it’s a reminder that theatre in its simplest form is about telling stories. It’s about taking an audience to a different world than the one they are currently in, getting to live in it, and experiencing the moments that make life universal. City Theater Company’s production gets back to the basics of what makes theatre so innately magical, and succeeds in telling the simple yet effective story of the Mundy sisters, that will leave you dancing at the beautiful things in life.


Dancing at Lughnasa is on stage at City Theater Company (The Delaware Contemporary

200 S. Madison St. Wilmington, DE) from now until April 27th, 2024.


For more information visit city-theater.org.


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