The first thing you see any time you enter the Jerome Mirza Theatre at Illinois Wesleyan University is the breathtaking artistry of master scenic designer Curtis Trout.

As you fumble with your ticket stub searching for your seat, acknowledge friends and co-workers also in attendance, and sit down to peruse the program, Trout's work calls to you.

It casts its unmistakable spell, and subliminally begins the theatrical experience even before the house lights are dimmed.

I've long admired Dr. Trout's work, but as I settled into my seat awaiting the start of IWU's current production, Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa," I was struck breathless by his pastoral setting.

Every possible detail was included, from individually oriented blades of grass, to unwanted weeds, to the humble cottage that was eloquently designed to frame the lives of the sisters Mundy.

And because of that, I was this production's captive, anxiously awaiting the opening curtain.

"Dancing" is a semi-autobiographical memory play, driven by the childhood recollections of the now adult Michael, who takes us back to 1936, when he was just 7 years old.

The setting is his home and that of his mum, Christine Mundy, and her four sisters on the day they get their first "wireless" radio, which they affectionately call "Marconi" in honor of the inventor of the magical gadget.

The five unmarried sisters toil away at life, doing the best they can.

Kate, the eldest, and the only source of reliable income, is a school teacher. Agnes and Rose knit gloves. Maggie takes care of the cooking. And Christine (Chrissy) tends to the laundry.

Michael recalls the return home of his Uncle Jack, a priest who had spent the last quarter century doing missionary work in a Ugandan leper colony. His experiences have changed him, both physically and spiritually, and the worried sisters work to rehabilitate him with regular exercise.

There is a sense of melancholy among them, as they mourn the brother they once had while getting to know this altered version of him.

Despite their circumstance, the pragmatic sisters stay focused on the business of living, as they cling to the wireless and the welcome bits of music that takes them away from themselves.

In Michael's memory, he recalls the moment sister Rose burst into a random fit of dancing, and soon the others followed, laughing until their sides ached and until Marconi overheats, which silences the whimsy just as quickly as it erupted.

Michael's father is a charming Welshman called Gerry Evans, and despite his detachment, he still holds the heartstrings of Chrissy. His visits, which are few and far between, create interesting ripples in the humble cottage.

Chicago-based director Michael Cotey applies appropriate pathos with generous brushstrokes in this well-crafted piece that is enhanced by the efforts of talented costume designer Susan High.

Cotey uses the intentionally tight playing space masterfully, arming his actors with additional means to communicate the varying emotions at play in the cottage.

The hard-working, dialect-mastering ensemble features the talents of Tuxford Turner, as Michael; Cameron Tokowitz, as Kate; Cadence Lamb, as Maggie; Hailey Lechelt, as Agnes; Kamilah Lay, as Rose; Libby Zabit, as Chrissy; Sam Hulsizer, as Gerry; and Will Mueller, as Father Jack.

"Dancing at Lughnasa," winner of multiple awards, including the 1992 Tony Award for best play, and 1992 Drama Desk Award for Best Direction, is a quiet play, with a poetic humanness to it that is somehow inspiring.

It's lovely.

Stiller is a freelance writer who reviews plays for The Pantagraph.


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