Staff writer Olivia Chiroiu reviews Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by Miguel Bregante (SOA ‘24), which ran at the Lenfest Center for the Arts from October 19 to October 22.

As I walked into the dim performance space to watch Dancing at Lughnasa, a play set in 1930s Ireland, the last thing I expected was to be serenaded by the music of Nina Simone. Her rich voice warming up the room was my first clue that this Directing Thesis production of Brian Friel’s play, directed by Miguel Bregante (SOA ‘24), would express the soul of the play in a unique and powerful way. 

Originally performed in 1990, Dancing at Lughnasa is the story of a woman-dominated household struggling to thrive in the Irish town of Ballybeg in the summer of 1936. Christina, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, and Kate are five unmarried sisters living together, and the events that occur in their small countryside cottage are bittersweet memories recounted by Christina’s son Michael (Carl Bindman), who is seven years old at the time. The family’s dynamic is complicated by the respective returns of Michael’s missionary uncle Jack and estranged father Gerry, both also played by Bindman. War, poverty, religion, and love are undercurrents that infuse the domestic scenes with a simultaneous sense of weight and transience, as we are aware that the family unit is destined to dissipate due to personal and social turmoil. In the meantime, we are enveloped in a liminal moment of reminiscence, with revelations that come and go like the music from the family’s wireless radio. 

Knowing practically nothing about the play’s plot going in, I was a bit wary as it began. After setting up the simple cottage set on a small wooden platform, the five sisters file in and begin to speak their dialogue, not facing each other, in an unnatural and detached manner. While this stylized approach certainly conveys the reconstructed, incomplete nature of Michael’s memories, it could wear thin if sustained. Fortunately, as we sink further into the past, the sisters become flesh and blood, interacting with each other and expressing themselves in ways that relay both their external and hidden feelings. Performances began to shine across the board with some standouts; Stella Diji imbued the playful Aunt Maggie with brilliant complexity and energy, and Helen Romeu Coombes played the straight-laced eldest sister Kate with a pitch-perfect cadence that also revealed the necessity underlying her rigidity. Rounding out the cast of sisters was Jane Purnell as Agnes, Bethsabé Caballero as the grounded yet romantic Chris, and Nanouli Shevardnadze, who played the developmentally delayed free spirit Rose with nuance and care. 

This is where it is necessary to rave about a true highlight of the show: a climatic dancing scene in the first act. In fact, calling it a “dancing scene” might be an understatement; it is violence, unity, power, and vulnerability all in one. The electrifying sequence is induced by the radio playing “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone. Bregante’s choice to use her soulful music, tinged with themes of spirituality and female pain, feels truly inspired. With great physicality, Maggie responds to the music by tapping feverishly in a loose rhythm, as though expelling all negative energy from her boots into the ground. Eventually, all five sisters are stomping and spinning with reckless abandon, their dynamic shadows decorating the walls thanks to lighting design by Yiyuan Li. The choreography by Anastasia Ellis, a current MFA student, created an artful balance between controlled movement and emphatic flailing, a near-ritualistic externalization of feelings that cannot be expressed otherwise. In a striking moment, the music cut out early and the sisters were left thrashing around in silence, letting out cries and pants, until they one-by-one collected themselves and tensely moved on. The catharsis was incomplete, but powerful nonetheless.

Production-wise, Bregante took an effectively minimalist approach to telling this story, privileging emotional resonance and narrative over photorealism. Other than the elaborate period garments by costume designer Brynne Oster-Bainnson, little else about the production’s formal elements evoked the specific setting; there were no Irish accents to be heard, and the set gave no indication that they were in a farm in the vast countryside. The stripped-down approach even extended to the decision to have all the male characters played by the same actor. Seven-year-old Michael himself is represented by nothing but a pair of shoes, cleverly puppeteered by the actors to create the impression of an invisible child lost to time. 

The blurring and abstraction of the male characters fit in with the overall style of the play, further centering the women and their stories by allowing them to take up more space on stage. The choice was also successful largely due to Carl Bindman’s fleshed-out and distinct characterizations of each man; he oscillated seamlessly between the earnest Michael to the charmingly lighthearted Gerry to the gruff and disoriented uncle Jack, who has been changed by his mission trip in Uganda. Bregante knew that Bindman’s performance would speak for itself, just like he knew we would be immersed in the story enough to fill in the gaps as we saw fit.

By the end of the play, all characters are on the bare stage again, swaying back and forth to Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” like ferns rocked by the wind. Watching them, I felt like I understood exactly why this play is still performed today; it is a tale of charged, complicated nostalgia, and people trying desperately to tune themselves in with the rhythms of life.

Dancing at Lughnasa via DeviantArt