DANCING AT LUGHNASA (Curio): Casting Disaster

The summer of 1998, I permanently moved out of my mother’s house. (My mother moved down to Nashville abruptly and without me.) So I traveled to Ireland and saw Brian Friel’s DANCING AT LUGHNASA at the Bloodstone Theatre in Galway.

Sixteen years passed between that and Curio Theatre Company‘s 2014 production of DANCING IN LUGHNASA, so I cannot say I truly remember the Bloodstone production. But at first sight of set designer/artistic director Paul Kuhn’s painstaking interpretation of the home of the five Mundy Sisters, the deliciously terrifying memories of the summer of ’98 came flooding back to me. Adulthood had been thrust upon me as the quickly as garment factories invaded the countryside of Ballybeg.

This autobiographical memory play is inspired by the memory of playwright Brian Friel’s own mother Christina and four aunts who lived on the west coast of County Donegal. Five venerable women face extreme change in their community.

Kuhn furnished his stage with all the trappings of a Irish country kitchen of the 1930’s: wall to wall wood, a large wooden turf box, wooden table and chairs, oil lamp, buckets with water at the back door, a cracked mirror hanging on the wall. The Chekhovian slice of life realism ends at the ceiling: Kuhn skillfully replaced the kitchen ceiling with a thin layer of white gauze, delicately indicating that this play is in fact a memory, written in the same expressionistic vein as Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMANor Williams’ autobiographical THE GLASS MENAGERIEAnd as Williams turned his excruciatingly personal play over to the character Tom to narrate MENAGERIEFriel creates own his vessel-narrator, Michael.

“When I cast my mind back to the summer of 1936, different kinds of memories offer themselves to me.”

When Michael said this, two drastically different kinds of thoughts occurred to me. First thought: Curio company member Eric Scotolati’s Michael is a survivor who radiates charm, an irresistible smoothness that offers a sliver of hope. Which led to my second though: if only I had not already seen Eric almost the very same character, as Tom the narrator of Renegade Theatre’s production of GLASS SHATTERED only six months ago (loosely based on Tennessee Williams’ Tom). If only I had not seen Eric play Alan Strang in Curio’s production of Peter Shaffer’s EQUUS last season in this very same room. Instead of simply applauding his talent, I left thinking: “Why does Eric seem to be the only young leading man Curio has in stock?”

The title of Wendy Rosenfeld’s recent Broad Street Review article DIVERSITY ONSTAGE: A CRITICAL ISSUE kept resurfacing in my mind as I watched Curio’s production. In theory, I applaud tightly knit ensembles like Curio. I understand that artists need communities to grow and collaborate using a common language. It is inspiring to read Curio’s mission in the program: “We tailor our season to our company of actors which largely consists of West Philadelphia residents. We strive to heighten the themes and impact of our work through innovative design choices.”

But watching DANCING I could not help but think: instead of tailoring the Curio season to the same twelve actors every single solitary season, I wish Gay Carducci (managing director) and Paul Kuhn would widen their casting pool by holding open auditions throughout the Philadelphia area, tailor the company to meet the demands of the each new production. Otherwise Curio’s productions will always run the risk of being stifled. To put it bluntly, it was painful to watch Colleen Hughes grapple with the role of the innocently simple Rose. Critics typically lay all the blame on the actor, but I refuse to do so. Seconds into the production it was plain that Hughes was just tragically miscast. She is too much a strong modern 21st century woman, and remained aloof on stage, like a stage manager simply standing in for another actor. She barely managed even to sound Irish at all. Forget about Friel’s classic PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME. When Hughes spoke, it was more like PHILADELPHIA, I NEVER LEFT.

Steve Carpenter and Isa St. Claire will be perfect playing young Michael’s parents Jerry and Christina in about ten years.  Actors can only take the roles they are given, and perform the role to the best of their ability. In reality, they are vulnerable to the context in which the director chooses to plant them.

Among the rubble of this casting disaster, accomplished actresses like Aetna Gallagher (Agnes), Trice Baldwin (Maggie), and Jennifer Summerfield (Kate) manage to carve out brilliant performances.

Kate says: “You work hard at your job. You try to keep the home together but suddenly you realize that cracks are appearing everywhere. It’s all about to collapse. But what I worry about most is Rose.”

I thought: Summerfield is giving the performance of her life as the tight-lipped spinster/schoolteacher Kate, but in this production, I am worried about Rose too. DANCING AT LUGHNASA ran February 21-March 15 at Curio Theatre, 4740 Baltimore Ave.

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