by Lynn on August 1, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Krista Jackson
Designed by Sue LePage
Lighting by Louise Guinand
Original music and sound by John Gzowski
Cast: Christopher Bowman
Fiona Byrne
Diana Donnelly
Patrick Galligan
Claire Jullien
Peter Millard
Sarena Parmar
Tara Rosling

A delicate ache of a play that is beautifully directed and acted. I would see this one again in a heartbeat.

The Story. It’s August, 1936, Ireland in the fictional town of Ballybeg, in the cottage of the five Mundy sisters—Christina, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, Kate—and Michael, Christina’s seven year old son.

Kate, the oldest, is a schoolteacher and the only one with a job. She is a matter-of-fact woman who rules the roost. Rose is a grown woman who is developmentally delayed but has a sense of independence but not the firm grasp of it. She needs to be taken care of to see that she doesn’t get in harm’s way. She and her sister Agnes make extra money by knitting gloves that they sell in the village. They both help their sister Maggie tend the house. Maggie has no income so tending the house is her way of paying her dues. She is lively, irreverent, funny, but hides deep emotions. Christina is the only one who really seems to have had a relationship with a man, Gerry, and the result was Michael. Gerry is an unreliable, care-free man who goes from job to job. He is affectionate to Michael but a disappointment. He makes promises that he breaks all the time.

The sisters’ brother Jack went to Uganda 25 years before as a missionary to work a leper colony. He comes home sick with malaria and he’s obviously changed. He seems to have turned his back on his Catholic teachings.

The adult Michael narrates what happens in the story regarding his aunts and father, tells us of their future and even gives voice to his seven-year-old-self as he interacts with his aunts.

The Production. Designer Sue LePage has created the outline of the small cottage where the five Mundy sister and Michael live. There are a few worn chairs around the kitchen, an old, unreliable radio up by one chair, an old stove where Maggie cooks across and up from the radio, outside at the back is an incline from stage right up to stage left and off. There are flowers too and in the front is a barren yard really where Michael plays (if only in the adult Michael’s retelling).

Director Krista Jackson has done a lovely job of realizing Brian Friel’s delicate, loving play. She illuminates its beating heart with fastidiousness to detail. It is a production as delicate and detailed as fine Irish lace. Jackson has created a familiar ‘choreography’ for the sisters as they negotiate their way around the space and each other. There is the conspiratorial nattering amongst the sisters regarding Kate. She is the oldest, the one who makes money and buys the groceries and the one who is in control of that family. You get a sense of Kate’s firm control over her sisters as well as a sense of fatigue and drudgery in Fiona Byrne’s nuanced performance. Money is always a worry and she knows it more than the others. That can ground a person down and it’s clear in this performance. Every cent is accounted for and every effort is made to buy what they need. Kate frets, scolds, gives directives and runs that family, but you are never in doubt that that attitude is informed by love because of Byrne’s lovely performance.

Rose is impetuous, confident in her own way, but not as mature as she should be, but Diana Donnelly plays her with such life that it’s not immediately apparent that Rose is developmentally delayed. When she rushes off to secretly meet a man the sisters become immediately concerned and so do we, as Rose’s secrets are gradually revealed.

Christina meets Gerry for one of his infrequent visits, Sarena Parmar as Christina is clearly still in love with this charming, disappointing man, but knows in her heart that he will leave her hurting. Parmar gives a lovely performance of one who trusts but knows it will end badly. Kristopher Bowman is a charming, awkward Gerry. He’s not a bad man, he’s just lacking in character and a moral compass. As Maggie, Tara Rosling provides the humour and irreverence that family needs. She is good natured but Rosling shows us a woman who has deep still waters and is watchful of the rest of her family. Agnes and Rose are almost inseparable. They knit together and Agnes takes care of Rose. Claire Jullien plays Agnes with a concerned edge; she is Rose’s defender if she feels Rose is being slighted. There is almost an urgency in Agnes’s knitting, that it’s important to make money from this simple task. We are told by Michael later in the play Agnes will make a stunning decision regarding her and Rose. We see hints of that determination and desperation in Jullien’s performance. Peter Millard plays a fragile, confused Father Jack. Over seeing all this activity, from the point of view of a loving memory, is the adult Michael. Patrick Galligan plays him with the tenderness of a man who knows the sacrifices of those sisters. It’s not a gaze that is sentimental but one that is tenderly matter of fact.

There is a scene in which the sisters are taken out of their dreary lives. One of the sisters turns on the radio and miraculously it works. A rousing Irish reel (I believe) is playing. Four of the sisters, but not Kate, give over to the music, dancing and swaying to it. Eventually Kate can’t resist. Fiona Burn as Kate fairly quivers with the intoxicating music until she bursts into the most liberating, freeing Irish step dance—she loses her usual control and lets the music take over. Fiona Byrne has created the Irish Dance Sequences for the production. In another life Ms Byrne was a champion Step Dancer. It’s obvious here. When the music ends the sisters breathlessly return to their ‘regular’ lives, almost embarrassed at experiencing this fleeting joy. Wonderful, poignant scene.

Comment. Playwright Brian Friel writes with a loving poetic lyricism. The play is based on the lives of his aunts. All his plays are full of his gentle, considerate observations and there is an ache. He writes about the thorny issues of family, poverty, desperation, respect, consideration, trying to do better and love. This is a lovely production. I’m eager to see it again.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Began: May 14, 2017.
Saw it: June 23, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 15, 2017.
Cast: 8; 3 men, 5 women
Running Time: 2 hours.

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