Live indoor theater is returning to the central Kenai Peninsula.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” survived the shutdown due to the new coronavirus pandemic. Brian Friel’s drama depicting a month in the lives of five poor but resolute Irish women will be put on by the Kenai Performers this weekend and next weekend.
Surviving the shutdown
Ian McEwen, who directs a full-length play for the Performers for the first time, said “Dancing at Lughnasa” was originally supposed to be performed in May as the final show of the Performers’ 2019-20 season.
“We started rehearsing in March,” McEwen said. “One week into rehearsals, COVID-19 took over and we closed everything down in alignment with state regulations.”
The director and eight-member cast were not sure if the show would go on, but decided to act as if it would.
“We are nothing if not hopeful, this particular crew,” McEwen said. “Because we weren’t told we had to cancel, we decided to delay and see what happened next season. We wanted to go forward as much as we could.”
Hannah Tauriainen, who plays one of the sisters and is a veteran of many Performers and Triumvirate Theatre performances, explains the motivation behind pushing forward.
“Artists love to create and tell stories together,” she said. “With everything going on with the coronavirus, we started something and decided to keep going for as long as we could.”
During the shutdown, the group got together once a week to rehearse over Zoom. McEwen said sticking together during the tough time meant the crew grew exceptionally close.
“We’d call in and read through half of the show and check on each other to see how everybody was doing,” McEwen said. “That helped bond the group into a family. I would not have been able to get through the weird COVID-19 time without the bond formed with this group.”
COVID restrictions in place
In June, the group was given the OK to do rehearsals in person. With a coronavirus mitigation plan in place, today will be the first time the central peninsula sees live indoor theater since the pandemic started.
Like everything else these days, things will look a little different.
The size of the crowd will be limited to 50 people. McEwen said that as families or social bubbles arrive together, their chairs will be grouped together in the audience, then more chairs will be used to separate that group from other groups.
The audience will be required to wear masks at all times. McEwen said the performance area has been set as far as possible away from the audience.
Tickets must be purchased in advance. They can be purchased at kenaiperformers.org.
There also will be no concessions available for purchase at the show and no opportunity to meet the cast after the show.
McEwen said the changes have not dampened his cast’s enthusiasm. The cast has been working with the script for seven months, while McEwen has now been working on the show for 16 or 17 months.
“These people have really lived this script for a while and are very passionate about getting it right and being truthful to the emotion in the show,” he said. “I really do believe this is a strong way to start the season and a strong way to bring theater back to the peninsula after everything was locked down in March.”
The pandemic also has meant McEwen has had to wait a little longer to make his directorial debut.
Mark Burton, a veteran of several Performers productions, said getting to work under McEwen is one of the main things that drew him to the production.
“I respect the hell out of the guy,” Burton said. “I wanted to be a part of something he was directing.”
McEwen is originally from Yakima, Washington. He majored in theater at North Park University in Chicago, graduating in 2004.
He moved to the peninsula at first to work at Alaska Christian College, then liked it so much here he decided to stay.
McEwen has been acting in Performers and Triumvirate productions for 10 or 11 years, also helping out with set construction, costuming and props. The only directing he’s done on the peninsula, though, is a 10-minute, one-act play for the Performers.
“It’s always been something I’m interested in,” McEwen said of directing. “It does take a lot of time and it’s a much larger commitment.”
Tauriainen has worked with McEwen on many shows. She said how well he is doing as a director is no surprise.
“I’ve known Ian for a long time,” she said. “I’m excited to be in a show directed by him.
“He knows what he wants and he’s fun to work with. He wanted us to develop our characters for ourselves. It’s been great working with him.”
McEwen gives credit to the Performers for encouraging him down this path.
“They were trying to get me to do something bigger, stretch my talent and do something I’ve never done before,” he said.
McEwen served as a sound designer for “Dancing at Lughnasa” in college. As he looked at a show to put on here, one thing that appealed to him about “Dancing at Lughnasa” is that the cast has five women and three men. He said a lot of shows have a higher percentage of male roles.
“Looking at the ridiculous amount of talent in the area, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to cast and I was right,” McEwen said. “We’ve got a great cast.”
The production of “Dancing at Lughnasa,” set in the 1930s in Ireland, then took on increased meaning as theater’s timeless pieces often do.
Life is not easy for the five Mundy sisters, all unmarried, and their brother Jack, a priest who has returned from missionary service in Uganda and is suffering from malaria.
“This show is important for now,” McEwen said. “We’ve had a rough year, but they always find ways to find happiness and joy, and that’s one reason I wanted to do this show. It has great Irish folk music and a little dialect that is an interesting challenge for myself and the actors.”
The only problem (spoiler alert) is that things do not end well for the Mundys.
“We’re telling a sad story, but we’re not being maudlin or depressed about it,” McEwen said. “There is the aspect that there are tough times ahead, but that’s what you’re buying into when you see drama.”
One more way the pandemic-induced delay fits the play is time of year. The play takes place in early August, around the time of the festival or Lughnasadh, a Celtic harvest festival.
Breaking down the cast
McEwen said, knock on wood, it is fortunate the tight cast of eight has made it through these tough times intact. The cast has a mix of experience.
Krista Plachta, who plays Rose Mundy, tells McEwen this is her first play of any sort.
“She came out and had a sweetness and something about her — she understood the character even at audition,” McEwen said. “She’s grown at becoming an actress during this show and the character she brings to Rosie is sweet, lovable and strong.”
Kelsey Short, playing Maggie Mundy, and Michael Burton, playing Father Jack Mundy, both have been in shows before, but not extended dramas like this one, according to McEwen.
Michael’s wife, Amy Burton, plays Kate Mundy, while Michael’s brother, Mark Burton, plays Gerry Evans. Evans fathered an illegitimate child with Chris Mundy, played by veteran Performers actress Selia Butler.
McEwen said the family ties on the cast have worked fine.
“Every once in a while I look at this cast and wonder, ‘How’s this working?’” he said. “But it’s working really well.”
Michael, the child of Gerry and Chris and narrator of the memory play, is played by Raleigh Van Natta, who had the lead in the big Performers production “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” earlier this year.
Tauriainen plays the final sister, Agnes.
“This is a really cool story about sisters,” Tauriainen said. “I come from a big family, so that’s something that is important to me.”
McEwen also gave credit to Terri Burdick for doing a great job holding things together as the producer.
A bittersweet ending
The cast is now looking forward to showing the community what they have been building toward for so long.
“I’m excited to show the community this play and put an end to the drought of theater in the community,” Mark Burton said.
The play will be Aug. 14 to 16 and Aug. 21 to 23, with Friday and Saturday shows at 7 p.m. and Sunday shows at 2 p.m. The play will be on the backside of Subway on Kalifornsky Beach Road. Tickets are $15. For reservations or more information, call 907-252-6808.
McEwen said there is a natural uncertainty about how big the crowd will be during this time, but he added the show is selling tickets.
“Anybody that comes and has paid money, we’re going to give them a show,” he said.
The one certain thing is that the close association this cast has had through the coronavirus shutdown is about to come to an end.