The Justice Theater Project’s current production of Brian Friel’s memory play Dancing at Lughnasa isn’t exactly lame, but it isn’t as light and lively on its feet as it should be. Given the parade of horrors that is about to befall the financially struggling Mundy family at the conclusion of this domestic drama, and in the months and years to come, there is a whistling-by-the-graveyard aspect of the events depicted.
What The Justice Theater Project audience got, at last Sunday’s matinee performance, is a choppy series of episodes in which the some of the cast, struggling with their Irish accents, swallowed important portions of the dialogue. Hence, much detail is lost about the five unmarried Munday sisters, their brother the convalescing priest returned under dubious circumstances from a 25-year mission to Uganda, and the youngest sister’s seven-year-old love child. Indeed, when interludes of dance spontaneously erupt — to leaven the Mundys’ hard-scrabble existence — they seem forced and frantic, not joyful or defiant of the strictures that the more conservative Catholic priests might impose.
Susannah Hough plays Kate, the eldest Mundy sister and the staunchest Catholic in the family, with just the right amount of starch. A 40-year-old teacher at the local Catholic school, Kate is the matriarch of the household and its principal breadwinner.
Leanne Norton Heintz injects plenty of personality into her role of 38-year-old Maggie Mundy, the family cook and principal housekeeper, as well as the biggest joker in the family. And Betsy Thompson Henderson expertly navigates the emotional shoals that have left the youngest Mundy sister, 26-year-old Christina, an unwed mother with no job and no future except the pipedream of marrying the charming but unreliable 33-year-old Welshman Gerry Evans (Jason Sharp), who got her in the family and then abandoned her and their son (rising fourth-grader Adam Sichel as Young Michael Evans), except for occasional, unannounced, whirlwind visits every couple of years.
But Renee Wimberly and rising University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill senior Christine Zagrobelny as the middle Mundy sisters, 35-year-old Agnes and 32-year-old Rose, make less memorable impressions. Their characterizations are as colorless as the gray gloves that they knit for a local maker of hand-knitted gloves. Wimberly is a cipher as Agnes, who nurses a secret affection for Gerry Evans, whom she’s always defending; and Zagrobelny’s depiction of the outbursts resulting from Rose’s developmental disabilities is awkward.
Jason Sharp’s and Michael Keough’s characterizations of the former ballroom dancing instructor and current gramophone salesman Gerry Evans and 53-year-old former Catholic missionary Fr. Jack Munday, recalled from Uganda because he has lost his faith and “gone native,” are much more convincing. (Keough and John Honeycutt alternate in the pivotal role of Father Jack, who is suffering from malaria and memory loss; expresses great and, perhaps, unnatural fondness for his former Ugandan houseboy; and seems to have embraced some African pagan beliefs in place of the tenets of the Catholic faith.)
But the star of this uneven show is Ryan Brock as the grownup Michael Evans, who serves as the show’s narrator and is the straw that stirs the dramatic drink as he reflects on his impoverished childhood when he nevertheless was shamelessly spoiled by his mother Chris and her four sisters.
Judging from last Sunday’s performance, Justice Theater Project artistic director Deb Royals-Mizerk has much fine-tuning to do before many of these players will be ready for prime time. On the other hand, the period fashions recreated in loving detail by costume designer David Serxner are quite striking; and the country-kitchen set by scenic designers Rebecca Buck, Lexie Nichols, and Deb Royals-Mizerk and the snippets of radio broadcasts delivered sporadically — as called for in the script — by sound designer Julie Jones also add authenticity to the proceedings.
Dancing at Lughnasa will complete its three-week run on June 18-20 and 25-27 at Cardinal Gibbons High School Performing Arts Center in Raleigh, NC. See our theater calendar for details.