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BWW Reviews: Lipscomb University's Lyrical and Sentimental DANCING AT LUGHNASA

Brian Friel's 1990 play, Dancing at Lughnasa, can be heartrending in its most dramatic scenes and then exuberantly and exhilaratingly buoyant in others, presenting theater artists with a challenge that allows them to prove their mettle while transporting audiences to another time and place: the fictional Irish village of Ballybeg in 1936.

Now onstage through this weekend as part of Lipscomb University's theatre department's 2014-15 season, the Beki Baker-directed rendition of Friel's exquisitely written play is brought to life by an impressive cast of eight student actors who are given ample opportunity to show us exactly what they have learned in the classroom. With performances that are richly nuanced and significantly heartfelt, Baker's ensemble bring their characters to the stage, mostly free of artifice and in so doing create a memorable theatrical experience that is affecting and compelling.

Clockwise from top left: Taylor Browning, Scout Pittman,
Mackenzie Lewis, Ann Marie Bagge and Lacy Hartselle

Friel's play is semi-autobiographical, based upon his memories of his mother and her sisters. Not unlike Tennessee Williams' most famous "memory play," The Glass Menagerie, there are similar themes to be found in both: a family in dire financial straits sees hopes and dreams dashed by the appearance and subsequent disappearance of a gentleman caller. Friel's play, much like Williams', is filled with moments of lyrical grace and flashes of beauty, skillfully set against the realities faced by Friel's Mundy sisters and Williams' Wingfield clan, which account for the deeper resonance felt throughout.

Dancing at Lughnasa's sentimentality, although it never seems manipulative, is palpable and provides a stunning emotional impact, yet it is leavened with flashes of lighter-than-air whimsy and humor that makes the play's impact all the more compelling. Baker's direction perfectly matches the tone of Friel's lovely script and she gives her young charges enough freedom to delineate their characters with aplomb and the unfettered charm of actors still on a journey of self-discovery. Thoroughly committed and impressively focused, the ensemble give themselves over to the world created by Friel (especially noteworthy are their Irish/Welsh accents, thanks to the efforts of their dialect coach Kari Smith) and, thus, bringing audiences along with them.

The five Mundy sisters are all unmarried, with elder sister Kate the only one with a well-paying job (she's a teacher in the village school), Maggie maintains the family household, Agnes and Rose (who is "simple" aka developmentally disabled) stitch handmade gloves that are sold in the village and youngest sister Christina is mother to seven-year-old Michael, her "love child" with the charming roué Gerry Evans, a ballroom dancing Welshman cum traveling salesman who, yearning for adventure, plans to join the International Brigade to challenge Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War. Father Jack, the eldest Mundy child, has returned from 25 years as a missionary in Uganda, suffering from malaria and struggling to recall the English language he has had little use for in Africa and striving to retrieve his long dormant Catholicism.

As Kate, Scout Pittman seems stern and controlling, but we are given a brief glimpse into her more playful, girlish side during a moment of dancing that fills the Mundy cottage with feelings of hope and sheer joy. Taylor Browning, as Maggie, shows an astonishing range as the keeper of the family hearth and flame, imbuing her character with warmth and good humor, while commanding the stage with ease. Together, Pittman and Browning provide exemplary onstage leadership among the ensemble.

Mackenzie Lewis is heartbreaking as Agnes, the hardworking sister who nurses a barely concealed crush on Gerry Evans, the father of her sister's son. Lewis' performance is perhaps the most impressive of the lot, considering she is just now approaching the completion of her freshman year at Lipscomb. As Rose, the "simple minded" Mundy sister who finds herself lost in a romantic fantasy that ultimately leads to her undoing, Ann Marie Bagge is sweetly engaging.

As youngest sister Christina, Lacy Hartselle delivers a beautifully modulated performance that is endearing and sympathetic. As the mother of "love child" Michael (played by Andrew Johnson as the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator of Friel's memory play), she artfully plays her character's youthful innocence framed by a mother's sense of responsibility. She is especially good in her scenes with Jonah Jackson as Gerry Evans, the quintessential charmer who flits from one adventure to the next, cloaking the realities of his life with a sunny disposition and easy way with a compliment. Jackson is easily one of the theatre program's shining lights at Lipscomb and he gives a superb performance as the ne'er-do-well Gerry.

As Father Jack, Dallas James Pritt takes on what is perhaps the college actor's most challenging role found in Dancing at Lughnasa, playing the 50-something Catholic priest with the right amount of humor and pathos.

Johnson effectively plays Michael, gracefully moving throughout the play's various scenes with a seamlessness that is essential to the show's success. Baker has chosen to put Michael square in the middle of the play's action, rather than relegating him to the side as is the case in many productions, thus affording Johnson a bigger acting challenge in the process.

The play's two acts - which seem quite long at two and three-quarters hours - have a tendency to move at a languid pace (which seems right for a memory play) and one wishes for more scenes of dancing in which the sisters give themselves over to the joy and exuberance which must have been a part of their childhood. Performed on a beautiful set designed by Andy Bleiler and evocatively lighted by David Hardy, the ensemble wears costumes by June Kingsbury that take them back to 1936 with an eye for detail. Candace Nichols' sound design, with its sounds of nature and pitch-perfect period tunes, helps to create the sense of time and place.

  • Dancing at Lughnasa. By Brian Friel. Directed by Beki Baker. Presented by the Lipscomb University Department of Theatre. Through April 18. At the University Theatre, Nashville. For details, go to Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one ten-minute intermission).

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