Dancing for the harvest

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What is the trick to take a play that happens in 1930s Ireland and make it relevant to modern audiences?

It is by tapping into a creative energy that dissolves the barrier between audience and actors, according to Janine Kehlenbach, artistic director of the 11 Minutes Theatre Company.

The Festival Playhouse, 5665 Olde Wadsworth Blvd., is playing host to the 11 Minutes Theatre Company’s production of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” from Nov. 14-16. Showtime will be 7:30 p.m. on all three nights.

“Friel writes in this really in this really poetic way, and he writes beautifully about language,” Kehlenbach said. “He does write about Irish issues, but this show really transcends the time and connects a lot to what is happening today.”

The story is a memory play, told by an adult Michael (Andrew Uhlenhopp) recounting two separate nights three weeks apart when he was 7 years old, living in the town of Ballybeg in northern Ireland’s County Donegal.

Michael remembers his five unmarried sisters, Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rosie and Christina Mundy and the day when their oldest brother Jack (Charley Ault) — a Catholic missionary — returned from 25 years serving in Uganda.

Jack has returned to his family almost unrecognizable, much of his rigid Catholicism gone, and he has become far more interested in the native tribes he worked with in Uganda.

Michael’s father Gerry (Kevin Leonard) is infrequently around, but he is leaving the country to fight in Spain against Franco’s fascist forces.

Kehlenbach said the drama in the play comes from the tension and interplay between the old and new world, as the sisters struggle to deal with the changes in the world around them. There is also the duality of the Christian and pagan rites that Jack brings to the family.

“The family is kind of caught in this time warp” she said. “What do we do in a world of new technology? What is at the base of who we are? I hope that people walk away and think about what’s their connection to the rest of humanity, and where are we going?”

For Kehlenbach and the cast, these questions are just now as they were when the play takes place

“There’s great joy with the interplay between the sisters, but there is a lot of longing for what could have been in all of their lives,” said Janet Mylott, who plays Agnes Mundy. “There are certain social forces — both then and now — that makes people lose certain parts of their being.”

That is certainly true for Kate (Margaret Amateis Casart), who is the oldest sister, and has been shouldered with the responsibility of taking care of the family, as well as dealing with the piousness required by the Catholic church.

“The words she uses most are responsibility and obligation,” said Casart. “She’s the only one with a job, and has taken on the traditionally male role of being the bread-winner for this family.”

Every sister has her role, and Maggie (Sasha Fisher ) is the joker, but according to Fisher, the humor is used for peacekeeping in the family. She also may be the most private, dealing with the setbacks in her life in a quite way.

“She helps to diffuse all the tension, and bring everyone together,” she said. “A lot of her life has passed her by, and she is starting to realize this might be it.”

Kehlenbach said that the relationships and community created by the cast is what makes the show special, and what will reach audiences.

“This cast has been the most generous and loving set of people that I have ever worked with,” Kehlenbach said. “They have given so much to this production and to each other; this is what 11 Minutes is about.”

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