Eastern to present 'Dancing at Lughnasa'

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Tue., Oct. 1, 2013
Alexis Kurtz rehearses the role of Maggie for the upcoming ECSU production of 'Dancing at Lughnasa.'  Photos by Melanie Savage.
Alexis Kurtz rehearses the role of Maggie for the upcoming ECSU production of 'Dancing at Lughnasa.' Photos by Melanie Savage.

On the evening of Sept. 21, a portion of the floor of the Harry Hope Theatre was covered by a large, blank piece of canvas. As a result, cast members of the upcoming Eastern Connecticut State University production of “Dancing at Lughnasa” were rehearsing in a smaller classroom nearby. The canvas would soon become a backdrop for the play, according to J.J. Cobb, associate professor of acting/theater and the director for the show, and would feature the hills and the road behind the house in Ireland’s County Donegal that is featured in Brian Friel’s lyrical work.

Cobb and Kristen Morgan, also a professor at Eastern and "Lughnasa's" scenic designer, had obtained a research grant to travel to Ireland to help prepare for the show. There, they studied dialect and dance. They also paid a visit to the home of playwright Friel’s aunt, sister of his mother, whose life in Glenties with her large family served as the inspiration for “Lughnasa.”

"The house is still standing,” said Cobb. “It was amazing to see all of the laurel trees.” “Lughnasa” tells the story of the five Mundy sisters during the autumn of 1936 in County Donegal. Seen through the eyes of the 7-year-old boy who lives among them (son of sister Christina), “Lughnasa” finds the sisters during a pivotal moment, as financial difficulties and other forces threaten to disrupt their lives. The play is punctuated by moments of song and dance, as a temperamental wireless radio, which the sisters have nicknamed "Marconi," intermittently brings 1930s dance and traditional Irish folk music into the home.

“This is one of my favorite plays of all time," said Cobb. "I’ve had a true affection for this story since seeing the original production more than 20 years ago. I’ve waited to direct it until the moment when I could gather the right ensemble, to be led primarily by a core of strong, open and passionate women.” The eight-member cast includes five women and three men, with crew bringing the number of students involved in the production up to approximately 25. Cast members are all undergraduate students, the majority of whom are theatre majors.

“It’s a very specific moment in the life of this family,” said senior theatre major Amanda Conkey, who plays the role of oldest sister, Kate. Challenges facing the Mundy sisters during the autumn of 1936 include religion, war and economics, said Conkey. For Michael, who is narrating the show as an adult looking back on his 7-year-old self, the period stands out as the first time he can remember his mother interacting with his estranged father. “It’s a very specific study of a real Irish family,” said Conkey.

Conkey said that the artistic team behind the production was taking great pains to remain true to time and place. “There are a lot of people working behind us to make things look very real and beautiful,” she said. Sensory details, such as the odor of a turf fire, would serve to heighten the experience. “It’s very much about trying to pull the audience into the world of these people,” said Conkey.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is the first production of the 2013-14 season for Eastern Connecticut State University’s Performing Arts Department and Drama Society. The show will run at The Harry Hope Theatre (Shafer Hall ground floor; corner of High and Valley Streets, Willimantic) from Thursday, Oct. 10, through Wednesday, Oct. 16. Show times are 7:30 p.m., except for a 4 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Oct. 13. The theatre is dark on Monday, Oct. 14. For more information, contact the box office at 860-465-5123.

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