Preview: ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ – Rural Ireland to Little Lake

The cast of "Dancing at Lughnasa" rehearses a scene in the barn at Little Lake Theatre in Canonsburg.

The cast of “Dancing at Lughnasa” rehearses a scene in the barn at Little Lake Theatre in Canonsburg.

There is beauty in hardship if you know how to find it. Director Jena Oberg, with Little Lake Theatre in Canonsburg, is hoping to share that message with audiences this summer.

Oberg is directing Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,” her second main stage production this year. The play, set in 1936 during the festival of Lughnasa in a fictitious County Donegal town in the north of the Republic of Ireland, features five sisters who face hardship daily.

The Mundy sisters – Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, and Christina – live together in one small rural home. Kate, the eldest of the sisters, is a school teacher and has the only decently paying job in the house. Agnes and Rose knit gloves to sell in town, though developmentally challenged Rose is forever child-like, stuck in the mind of a seven-year-old. Maggie nor Christina are employed. Maggie works around the house and Christina is raising a young son, Michael. Also in the home is the sisters’ brother, Jack, a Catholic priest who has just returned from Africa.

The play is a memory play narrated by the now-adult Michael. “[Michael] is remembering these two weeks in his life when he was seven,” says Oberg, “where . . . his world was changed and, I think in many ways, where he was the happiest.”

When the play begins, the Mundy family have recently gotten a radio. For a family without much money or many worldly possessions, the radio provides excitement and entertainment – when the radio works, that is. The radio, affectionately referred to as “Marconi” by the sisters, is sporadic, at best. The sisters seem to have little control over when the radio turns on and off, but the erratic radio leads to bursts of wild dancing from the sisters.

Garrett Storm and Jenna Lanz rehearse for "Dancing at Lughnasa."

Garrett Storm and Jenna Lanz rehearse for “Dancing at Lughnasa.”

For the eight-person cast of “Dancing at Lughnasa,” the dancing is a crucial part of the play. Oberg calls the dancing “a metaphor and expression of [the Mundys’] repressed feelings and needs” and says it’s been a bit of a challenge.

“We spent about two and half hours one day learning the dance. We run it almost every rehearsal, several times,” says Oberg, who says the cast had to rehearse their dance in hot temperatures made somehow more sweltering inside the theater’s barn, where casts often rehearse during Little Lake’s season.

Little Lake Theatre operates like a well-oiled machine. Once the season opens, there is often at least one show running on the main stage and another show rehearsing in the red barn on the theater’s property. Veteran actors and directors at Little Lake are accustomed to working in the barn – it’s often brutally hot in the summer and numbingly cold in the winter.

“We’ve had about two or three rehearsals in the actual theater, most of the time we’re in the barn,” says Oberg. “Earlier this month, it was really hot, and I’m making them dance very fast for three and a half minutes straight,” she says, laughing.

Another challenge for the cast has been the dialect.

“We’re headed more towards a Belfast Irish, which will sound a little different to people who are used to the Lucky Charms sort of generic Irish,” says Oberg. And, making it even more challenging, Oberg adds, “One of the characters is Welsh, so one character does not have an Irish dialect, which makes it even harder because when you’re trying to stay consistent in a dialect and one person isn’t, it’s pretty tough.”

Gerry, the only Welsh character, is Michael’s father and Christina’s object of affection. He is a traveling salesman, a former ballroom dancing instructor and is joining the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War. His presence has never been a constant in young Michael’s life. Though he has genuine feelings for Christina, he comes into and leaves her life as sporadically as the radio turns on and off.

Oberg, who wears many hats at Little Lake, points out that though it’s easy to see the sisters’ hardships, she hopes the audience will recognize the joy and beauty in the show.

“These women’s lives are pretty hard . . . we all live a hard life in our own way . . . But there’s such incredible love and beauty in the play,” says Oberg, adding that hopefully “people can celebrate these moments of joy and these moments of beauty that exist in our lives even when we’re struggling.”

The director also adds that the play conveys a message that “the power of dance and the power of music [can] say things that we can’t verbalize for whatever reason.”

Originally, director Oberg wanted to be in the play, but when she was approached to direct “Dancing at Lughnasa” instead, she says, “I think I’d rather direct it now that I think about it because I love each of these characters so much that I’d like to be able to manipulate them all.”

The barn at Little Lake Theatre.

The barn at Little Lake Theatre.

While this is Oberg’s second time directing a main stage show this season, she has also recently begun rehearsals for “James and the Giant Peach,” which she is also directing, for Little Lake’s Looking Glass Theatre for children. In the past, Oberg has designed props, worked on costumes, and worked in the ticket booth for Little Lake. She also acts in at least one show per season and occasionally fills in as technical director.

“Almost every year I get roped into at least one or two technical director positions. So far this year, I’m off the hook,” she says.

And while Oberg may have her hands full, she is finding joy in “Dancing at Lughnasa.”

Greg Caridi rehearsing as narrator Michael.

Greg Caridi rehearsing as narrator Michael.

“It’s pretty rare in non-professional theater to get eight actors who are all skilled enough that you can say things to them and give them suggestions and they run with it. And I’m really blessed with that . . . But that’s kind of like theater magic and it doesn’t happen very often.”

Half of the cast are Little Lake veterans and half are brand new to “the Lake,” as veterans call it. The returning cast members are: Deborah Becker as Maggie; Greg Caridi as Michael; Phil Powell as Father Jack; and Jen Sinatra as Kate. Between the four of them, they have done approximately 30 shows at Little Lake. The new cast members are: Katie Kerr as Agnes; Jenna Lanz as Christina; Katy Pretz as Rose; and Garrett Storm as Gerry.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” opens at Little Lake Theatre on July 24 and runs for three weekends. For a complete list of show dates and times and to reserve tickets, visit www.littlelake.org or call the box office at 724-745-6300. Little Lake Theatre is located at 500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg, PA 15317.
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Story by Danette Marie Levers for Pennsylvania Bridges

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