By sheer coincidence it seems, the two plays that opened locally last weekend have much in common. “Dancing at Lughnasa” (at the Santa Paula Theater Center) and “Quilters” (at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Forum Theatre) both focus on families of women, and both take place in rustic settings. Further, the Santa Paula group presented “Quilters” only last year, with the same choreographer and one of the same actors as the Santa Susana Repertory Company’s current Thousand Oaks production.
Irish playwright Brian Friel’s 1990 “Lughnasa” takes place in rural County Donegal in 1936, but the setting is nearly as rustic as that of “Quilters,” set in the 19th-Century American frontier.
About the only thing that the five sisters in “Lughnasa” have that the six sisters in “Quilters” don’t have is a primitive battery-operated radio, which operates only intermittently anyway. (Lughnasa, pronounced LOO-na-sa, is an Irish harvest festival, dating to pagan times and forming the time frame for the play’s action).
The hardy pioneers in Molly Newman and Barbara Damashak’s “Quilters” are introduced as a family, with the seven women (one a mother and the rest her daughters) called upon to play numerous other roles, ranging from dying cattle to the menfolk who touch their lives in a patchwork series of scenes based on specific incidents in the characters’ lives.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” focuses on five sisters--four spinsters and an unwed mother. The story is seen though the eyes of the sister’s son and includes actual men on stage: the boy-narrator; his peripatetic father, Gerry; and the family’s slightly batty Uncle Jack, just returned under mysterious circumstances from a quarter-century’s missionary work in Africa.
The women in “Lughnasa” are going through a crisis in their collective lives that will result in lasting change to the family dynamic; the “Quilters” and their spouses are enduring one crisis after another, quite literally from birth to death, though not in that order.
Among its many virtues, “Quilters"--adapted from primary sources such as diaries--is an easy-to-take history lesson; “Lughnasa” is more of a warm family remembrance, stronger on personality and atmosphere than historical detail or even action.
Directed by John Slade, the Santa Susana Rep’s “Quilters” is more straightforward than its Santa Paula predecessor, with less dancing and other pure theatricality--interesting in that this show’s choreographer, Dani Brown, co-directed the Santa Paula version as well as one a year earlier than that, in Simi Valley.
Many viewers will appreciate this more stripped-down (and briefer) approach. The play still includes plenty of music, very well-sung by the ensemble and played by the offstage band under musical director Zachary Provost.
The sound in the Civic Arts Plaza’s Forum Theatre is particularly good for “Quilters": The music sounds like it’s coming off a compact disc.
The consistently top-notch ensemble cast of “Dancing at Lughnasa” consists of MaryAnn Eisenberg, Linda Livingston, Kathryn Dippong, Patricia Wyble and Stephanie Lowe as the doughty sisters; Gary Best, flashing a toothy smile that William Devane would envy, as rascally and footloose Gerry; Ronald Rezak as Uncle Jack; and Christopher Cook as the narrator, Michael, who occasionally wanders into the action like the Stage Manager in “Our Town.”
Donna Fuller plays the mother, Sarah, in “Quilters,” with Gretchen Weiss, Aspasia Alexander, Melanie Lindgren, Kelie McIver, Elaine Welton Hill and Christine Zirbel (the veteran of the Santa Paula production) as her daughters, with everybody playing several other characters as the play proceeds. As with “Lughnasa,” everybody here is first-rate, and singling out performances would be unfair to the ensemble.
Both productions are particularly good-looking, with the “Quilters” set designed by Roger Ambrose and the Irish house of “Lughnasa” by Gary Best.
“Dancing at Lughnasa”
* WHEN: Thursday through Saturday nights at 8; Sunday afternoons at 2:30 through Sept. 17.
* WHERE: Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. 7th St., Santa Paula.
* HOW MUCH: General admission, $12.50; students and seniors, $10. Discounts available for groups of 10 or more.
* FYI: For reservations or information, call 525-4645.
* WHEN: Friday and Saturday nights at 8:30, Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30. Closes Aug. 27.
* WHERE: Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Forum Theatre, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks.
* HOW MUCH: General admission, $25; students and seniors, $20. Available at the box office, or may be charged through Ticketmaster at 583-8700. For group reservations, call 684-6035.
* FYI: Civic Arts Plaza box office: 449-ARTS (2787).