Two plays take on bittersweet memories

‘It’s not the past that shapes us—but images of the past.”

So wrote the late Irish playwright Brian Friel, whose interest in the power of memory runs all through his bittersweet 1990 drama Dancing at Lughnasa, at Main Stage West in Sebastopol. Similarly, Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Titanic: The Musical, running at Spreckels Theater Company, balances the facts of history and the potent emotions that spring from powerful shared memories.

Directed with appropriate grandeur by Gene Abravaya, Titanic features outstanding singing voices and ever-shifting projections to tell the tale of “the largest moving object in the world.” With impressive music from a tight quintet of offstage musicians, under the direction of Tina Lloyd Meals, the show frequently soars with feeling, as we are introduced to various characters—based on historical figures—most of whom we know will perish when the massive ship strikes an iceberg.

It should be mentioned that the iceberg—portrayed by an animated children’s-book illustration projected across the stage’s five screens—is jarringly silly looking, and if it weren’t for the dramatic magnitude of the moment, might otherwise have drawn a laugh. Given that iceberg’s iconic historical status, it’s a serious distraction.

But when weighed against the gorgeous music, the consistent excellence and heartfelt spirit of Abravaya’s unified 25-actor cast—plus the poignant beauty of the script’s canny emphasis on human relationships—it would take a whole lot more than one goofy graphic to sink this mighty Titanic.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★

Set between the world wars, Dancing at Lughnasa recounts one summer in the tiny Irish town of Ballybeg that the narrator, Michael (Steven Abbott), spends with his mother and four aunts. In bringing this colorful quintet of sisters to life, director Molly Noble has assembled a stellar cast of actresses: Liz Jahren, Florianna Allessandria, Ivy Rose Miller, Ilana Niernberger and Sharia Pierce. Each is extraordinary in her own way, hilarious and affecting, as Michael recalls the clashing hopes and fears that would set the course of all of their futures.

As Gerry, Michael’s father, Sam Coughlin is charmingly roguish, and John Craven, as the sisters’ older brother, Jack—a church missionary gone gleefully pagan—is superb. Softly drenched in sweet nostalgia, Lughnasa is a beautiful play, beautifully executed. ★★★★½

‘Titanic: The Musical’ runs through Oct. 30 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. 707.588.3400. ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ runs Thursday–Sunday through Oct. 30 at Main Stage West. 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 707.823.0177.


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