Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Dancing at Lughnasa
Novato Theater Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of Grey Matter and Richard's reviews of The Last Five Years, The Diplomats, and Red Velvet

Isabelle Grimm, Siobhan O'Brien, Shannon Veon Kase, Lily Jackson, and Kristine Ann Lowry
Photo by Mark Clark
The Mundy sisters are trapped. Their prison is one partly of their own making, and partly the result of accidents of birth and bad luck. These five sisters—Kate, Agnes, Maggie, Christine, and Rose—occupy a modest home in the fictional village of Ballybeg, in the real county of Donegal in the far northwest of Ireland. For the most part, their idea of breaking free consists of talking about putting on their nicest clothes and going to the harvest festival dance that celebrates the pagan feast of Lughnasa. Dancing at Lughnasa takes us deeply into the lives of these five sisters during a summer in 1936 that is remarkable in some aspects yet completely ordinary in many others. The production of this Tony and Olivier Award-winning play at Novato Theater Company has much to recommend it—primarily playwright Brian Friel's excellent, efficient text, and strong performances from several of the actors. But it is unfortunately dragged down by the director's (and the cast's) inability to access the brittle humanity of the Mundy sisters.

As individuals, the cast is mostly excellent. Isabelle Grimm, as Rose, does a fine job of playing the simple younger sister who spends her days with sister Agnes knitting gloves to sell in town. As Maggie, Shannon Veon Kase is one of the highlights of the show. Maggie is the character most in touch with the joy of life, and Kase's energetic performance is a delight to behold. Lily Jackson's Christine—the sister who had a baby out of wedlock, fathered by a traveling salesman—is appropriately subdued, but clearly longing to once again feel the passion she knew when Gerry Evans (her baby daddy) promised to whisk her into a new life.

But nothing happens in the Mundy household without the advice and consent of Kate, the eldest sister, and the only one with a real job. Kristine Ann Lowry gets off to a slow start with her portrayal of Kate, but as the story develops, and all the things that offend her strict Catholic sensibilities are revealed—unreliable men, pagan rituals, waste of any kind—her haughtiness and superiority begin to peek through the cracks. Her lean frame is perfect for the role. She looks like a woman who, when deciding on what to give up for Lent, decides on food. She is the picture of ascetic self-denial.

There are strong performances also from the men. John J. Hanlon plays Michael, Christine's illegitimate son, now grown, whose narrative recollections of his childhood form the backbone of the play. He lurks at the edges of scenes, occasionally giving voice to his 7-year-old self. But the finest performance of the night may belong to Mark Ian Schwartz as Gerry Evans, Michael's ne'er-do-well father. Schwartz exhibits an unctuous but very real charm that lets the audience see just how a country girl could be taken in by a seemingly sincere man who is blissfully unaware of his own caddishness. Schwartz makes you want to fall for him, even though you know it will all come to nothing in the end. Jim McFadden as Father Jack (the five sister's older brother who has come home from a mission to lepers in Uganda) displays his character's dementia and embrace of African naturism with both delicacy and gusto.

Yet, despite these workmanlike performances, and despite the very real chemistry the cast exhibits, their joint efforts never gel into something with any emotional veracity. Their chemistry is that of a cast who are enjoying playing with each other—but as actors, not as characters. It's almost as if they love each other so much as fellow cast members that they can't summon the bitchiness and anger and pain the characters inflict. The reality that these people are playing roles is rarely hidden beneath their performances, making it harder for the audience to suspend disbelief and surrender to the story Friel is telling us.

Dancing at Lughnasa runs through June 12, 2016, at the Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $27 general, $24 for seniors and students, $21 for NTC members and $12 for children under 12. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 415-883-4498.

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