Everyman Theatre kicked off its 2018-19 season with a bang as Dancing at Lughnasa waltzes into the minds and psyche of audiences this month. The play, by Irish playwright Brian Friel, is wrought with poetic realism. Telling the story as only a master Irish storyteller could, audiences are given a glimpse into the fictional family life of five unmarried sisters in a countryside town filled with beauty and shrouded in a cloud of poverty. Director and choreographer Amber Paige McGinnis recently chatted with Baltimore OUTloud.

Frankie Kujawa: What can audiences expect from this performance of Dancing at Lughnasa?

Amber Paige McGinnis: Playwright Brian Friel has give us a masterpiece of contemporary theatre. This play does everything good theatre should do: it makes us laugh, makes us cry, makes us love characters even when they are flawed, and doesn’t spoon-feed us theme or plot. It leaves us thinking: both enchanted by the memory of the past, and also disturbed by it.

As a director, what elements of the play were important for you to showcase on stage?

Coming from a background in movement, I’ve always been intrigued by the universal language of dance. Growing up, dance was one of my biggest forms of self-expression and, like Friel, I think that when we dance we can channel a form of communication that existed before words, connecting to our most primal instincts. So, in our production I really wanted to highlight this concept and connect this thematic idea to the conflict Friel draws between the church and “pagan” desires that lie within us.

It was also really important to me to honor the women in this play, who are based on Friel’s real mother and aunts that lived in Donegal, Ireland. (He dedicated the play, “In memory of those five brave Glenties women.”) The narrator, Michael, who steps us into his memory of that summer of 1936 has been largely abandoned by the men in his life, and in his journey through the past examines the hardships and sacrifices these brave women made to survive and care for him within a system and society that had largely abandoned them.

The family dynamic throughout the play ebbs and flows, much like a roller coaster with peaks and valleys. Was it difficult for the cast to form that dynamic so it would translate onto the stage?

It was important for us to be very specific about each character’s relationship to one another. Take Rose for example: each sister has a very different relationship with her, which changes how they communicate. This in turn affects how they react when they face a crisis concerning Rose’s whereabouts in act two, which changes each character’s objective and tactics. The cast was so committed to bringing this clarity to every relationship on stage and I think it really shows in their performance.

Throughout the play, the narrator Michael recalls his youth with differing perspectives of the positive and negative events in his life. How did the idea of memory and reflection factor into this performance?

Early in the process, the designers and I locked into the concept of memory as a painting: that certain aspects of our memory have broader brush strokes, while others have such great precision you can almost smell the baked bread from grandmother’s house or feel the scratchy wool on your grandfather’s favorite sweater. We approached Michael’s memory like this. He literally steps into this painting to tell his story, and within it we see both painterly windblown trees that look like they came straight from a Paul Henry painting, alongside more realistic details like a real working stove. Through this concept my hope is that we experience the memory as Friel, through Michael’s words, describes it: a place where “atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.”

What specifically do you hope audiences take away from this play?

This is such a rich piece, I feel like audiences can walk away with a lot of different things. I hope they feel that they’ve spent time with characters they care about. I hope it triggers some of our own memories from the past – those defining moments where we experienced, as Michael does in the play, that “widening breech between what seemed to be and what was.” I hope it engages our eternal struggle (or dance if you will) between the hopes and desires that come from within, and the pressures and expectations the outside world puts on us.

For info on tickets and showtimes, visit Everymantheatre.org.

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Frankie Kujawa
Frankie Kujawa
Since 2011, arts writer Frankie Kujawa has covered a wide scope of entertainment stories and celebrity interviews. From the late Carrie Fisher and LGBTQ icon George Takei to comedians Lily Tomlin and Kathy Griffin to performer Idina Menzel, Kujawa’s candid interview ability brings readers past the byline and into the heart of the story. His unbiased previews of Baltimore-Washington’s theatre scene have allowed readers an inside glimpse of today’s most popular local and national performances. A Baltimore-native, Kujawa is proud to call Charm City his home.
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