Only a handful of plays have ever been produced outdoors at Yale. This week, Erin Cawley ’08 brings Yale undergraduate theatre back to the open air with “Dancing at Lughnasa,” an Irish tale that will be showing in Davenport’s lower courtyard.
“Dancing at Lughnasa,” a semi-autobiographical play by Brian Friel, presents the story of an Irish family near the fictional town of Ballybeg. Narrator Michael Evans (Jason Perlman ’11) recounts the summer of 1936, when he was seven years old and lived in a cottage with his single mother Christina (Devon Martinez ’11), her four sisters and her brother Jack (Jaime Totti ’09), with occasional visits from his biological father Gerry (Colin Murphy ’11).
The play develops the tense dynamics of the Mundy family. The Mundy sisters somewhat resent their eldest sister Kate (Maya Seidler ’11), a Catholic schoolteacher who runs the household with a strict hand and forbids frivolity and dancing. The family worries about Father Jack, who had worked for twenty-five years in a leper colony in Africa and has difficulty remembering his family members and the English language and scandalizes Kate with his fond recounts of African pagan rituals.
The sisters also worry about Rose (Maia Collier ’11), who becomes involved with a married man. They worry that Christina might find herself abandoned and heartbroken again when Gerry visits to romance her and make her promises. The Mundys face financial trouble with the oncoming of the Industrial Revolution as well as the town’s negative perception of Father Jack’s mental state.
Since this play was produced outdoors instead of on a stage, the production garners both the difficulties and the charms of an outdoor setting. Set against the sunset and situated amongst green grass, a large tree and the gardens of Davenport’s lower court, the play takes on a pastoral feel very appropriate to its Irish nature.
However, without scene changes or the benefits of lighting and other effects to provide variety, the play rests solely on the merits of the script and the actor’s performances to remain engaging and dynamic. Without the formality of a stage, many of the scenes in open air felt more casual and less effective than they might have in a theatre.
The most exciting moments in the play arise when the sisters’ radio Macaroni would spontaneously flicker on at the most appropriate moments, providing vibrant Irish tunes to provoke dancing or set the mood for certain scenes. The production could have used an extra dosage of excitement like this, either through more utilization of music or dramatic acting.
The chemistry between characters could likewise have used more dynamism and vibrancy. Between the five sisters, only exchanges between righteous and straight-laced Kate and cheeky and fun-loving Maggie (Summer Banks ’08) hold a spark of life. In interactions with the rest of the sisters, the overbearing nature of Kate’s character — as well as Seidler’s somewhat one-note performance throughout — dominates most scenes and sometimes stagnates the play where more varied performances and interactions between sisters would have served better.
The play shines more in the good chemistry between Murphy and Martinez, however, and Perlman and Banks.
Overall, “Dancing at Lughnasa”’s heavy themes somehow feel lost between the one-note tone of the performance and the lack of drama. The play doesn’t entirely draw you in, but its pastoral charms still make the evening enjoyable.