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Review: Dancing at Lughnasa's bad set results in a dull and disconnected production

Claire Jullien, left, plays Agnes and Diana Donnelly plays Rose in the Shaw Festival’s Dancing at Lughnasa.

David Cooper/David Cooper

2 out of 4 stars

Dancing at Lughnasa
Written by
Brian Friel
Directed by
Krista Jackson
Tara Rosling, Fiona Byrne, Sarena Parmar
Shaw Festival
Royal George Theatre
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Runs Until
Sunday, October 15, 2017

Why do bad sets happen to good plays?

The Shaw Festival's new production of Dancing at Lughnasa is the latest case where a veteran designer at one of Ontario's repertory theatre companies has been paired with a Western Canadian director new to the complicated rep system – and the results have been a disaster.

Irish playwright Brian Friel's 1990 Tony- and Olivier-winning semi-autobiographical drama is what Tennessee Williams called a "memory play" – in which a character narrates his memories of the past, which come to life in front of an audience. Indeed, it is set in the same year as Williams's play for which he coined the term, The Glass Menagerie: 1936.

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The narrator is Michael Mundy (Patrick Galligan), who is recalling for the audience that summer in the 1930s when he was seven years old and his grand-uncle Jack (Peter Millard) came home to County Donegal after decades of working in a leper colony in Africa.

What was supposed to be a celebratory summer turned into the last one that Michael's unwed mother Christina (Sarena Parmar) and her four single sisters spent together in the old homestead.

In Sue LePage's design, alas, Michael seems to be not so much remembering his childhood, but rather searching for his memories under the cushions of an old, mouldy chesterfield.

The rolling green hills of Ireland are depicted by waves of grey fabric that rise into confusing columns on either side of the stage. But worse than the sheer ugliness of the set is that the Royal George Theatre's stage has been sliced up by LePage into two playing areas that seem completely unsuited to the action.

Most of Dancing at Lughnasa takes place in the kitchen of the Mundys' house – where the five sisters dream and argue and go about their domestic duties.

Kate (Fiona Byrne) is the bread-earner, a schoolteacher whose tries to make sure her sisters stay rigidly Catholic – in part because she serves at the pleasure of the local priest.

Agnes (Claire Jullien) and the "simple" sister Rose (Diana Donnelly) make a little extra money knitting gloves, while Maggie (Tara Rosling) and Christina take care of the house and of Michael – whose father is a big-dreaming travelling salesman from Wales.

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In his script, Friel specifies that this kitchen takes up more than half of the stage – but LePage has it smooshed into perhaps a sixth of it, a triangular wedge at a remove from the audience in which the cast seem consistently cramped. They awkwardly manoeuvre around each other as they attempt to naturalistically go about their sewing, sweeping and cooking.

This detailed kitchen is surrounded by a murky moat of more grey – a vast, underused area near the audience that represents the garden, and a ramp at the back that gets used even less.

You can see the concept behind a set like this – a design that, in the complicated rep system like the one at the Shaw Festival, would likely have been dreamed up a year in advance and built before the director Krista Jackson would have had the chance to really work on the text with the actors.

After all, the Mundy sisters are constrained and stifled – by the gender roles of the time, by the Catholic Church, by the legacy of British colonialism, and by new shifts in the economy that make them compete with faraway factories. So why not cram them all together like sardines in a can?

Well, why not becomes clear quickly enough. Friel's play is a delicate, atmospheric one, built around minor shifts in the relationships between the sisters that will only have major implications down the line. All the consequences take place off-stage and in the future – deaths and departures that we hear about from Michael in a series of monologues.

If Dancing at Lughnasa is to truly come to life, it has to be through an ensemble of actors that seem like a real family – with the lifelong affection and irritations implied. LePage gives them no room for them to act this subtext and keeps them far away from the audience. The result is a dull and disconnected production that makes Friel's much-lauded play seem highly overrated.

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The Shaw cast only really feels like a true ensemble in the play's famous dancing scene where director Jackson, who has been behind well-regarded work at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, where she is associate artistic director, has the sisters burst through the invisible walls of the kitchen and romp all over the stage as if no one is looking, during one of the moments where the highly symbolic wireless radio is not on the fritz.

We occasionally get glimpses of fine performances in Jackson's production. Galligan makes a charming narrator, while Parmar is heartbreakingly deluded as Christina – whose feelings for Michael's charming and completely unreliable father (Kristopher Bowman) surge back against her will when he makes a brief return to town. Rosling is a real stand-out, charming as a woman who love cigarettes, cooking and kids.

I think it's telling that these actors all impressed me when they were allowed to get out of the kitchen.

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