Arena Theater opened their spring semester production on Feb. 20 with “Dancing at Lughnasa,” a play by Brian Friel set in 1930’s Ireland.
The play, said to be based largely on the story of Friel’s own family, depicts five sisters living together in a household in Ireland. It is narrated from the perspective of Michael, the young son of one of the sisters. “Dancing at Lughnasa” won three Tony awards during its time on Broadway, including award for Best Play.
Director Kailey Bell, who also directed the opera “Dido and Aeneas” for the conservatory of music last semester, said that the play is about, “relationship between family members, the roles we play in our family both consciously and subconsciously, memory, looking back and physical expression of things too deep or inexplicable for mere words.”
Bell has worked at many regional theaters including Cleveland Playhouse, Indiana Repertory Theater, Chicago Shakespeare and Kansas City Repertory Theater. She also works currently as an adjunct professor of communication at Wheaton.
The story of the play takes place during the summer of 1936, a turning point in the life of the five Mundy sisters. Their brother Jack has just returned from his time as missionary in Uganda, and it becomes clear that his ideas of religion have morphed from Catholicism to echo those of the Ugandan people. Prospects of love surface for several of the sisters, all of whom are unmarried. Among these is the visit of Michael’s father, who is a charming but irresponsible man working as a gramophone salesman.
The program cited British critic Lyn Gardner who commented that, “almost nothing happens and yet everything changes.”
The “change” is a reference to the changes in the household that take place throughout the play. Two of the sisters who knit for a living have their livelihood threatened by the opening of a knitwear factory close by. Likewise, the oldest sister is a schoolteacher who loses her position when her brother renounces his Christian faith. These forces outside the sisters’ control interject themselves into the lives of the Mundy women, foreshadowing the divide that will take place in their household.
As a black box theater, Arena can be configured in many different ways, and this production featured a set angled in between the perpendicular seating. Shapes of kites were cut into the walls of the living room, as well as formed by the trellises that constructed the scene. Kite shapes were also present in the boards of the roof. The theme of the kite in the play was materialized by eight-year-old Michael, who makes kites that cannot fly. Like the sisters, the kites cannot reach freedom, or leave the ground of the lives which often feel constraining.
Dancing also plays an important role, largely brought into the play by Michael’s father, Gerry Evans, who formerly taught ballroom dance lessons. The sisters briefly contemplate attending a harvest dance, but are discouraged by the eldest sister. Dancing also embodies the joy in the life of the Mundy sisters. In the end the audience is told that Gerry injures himself and can never dance again, indicating the bleakness of the play’s end.
The cast included eight characters, including the five sisters, Reverend Jack, Gerry and the grown Michael, who narrated the play.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” will conclude this weekend with Friday and Saturday evening and Saturday matinee performances. Their final production of the academic year will be in April.