Review: ‘Lagan’ makes U.S. premiere At Villanova

By Ellen Wilson Dilks

Villanova Theatre’s third production of their 2016—2017 season is the U.S. premiere of “Lagan” (Lay-gahn, which is a river that runs through Belfast) by Stacey Gregg.  Directed by Villanova graduate Kathryn MacMillan (who is also the resident director at Philadelphia’s Lantern Theatre), the production runs in the University’s Vasey Hall through Feb. 19, 2017.

Ms. Gregg is an up and coming voice in Irish theatre, with plays produced by the Abbey Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre, where she is a Creative Associate. In “Lagan”, she weaves together several monologues and vignettes to tell a story about Belfast in Northern Ireland—about the changes in the city since “The Troubles.”  It’s an intimate look at a people who spent 30 years in the midst of a civil war and then had to adjust to a sudden—and somewhat confusing—peace.  The piece explores how a citizenry is affected by the events of their city’s past. It asks the question “Can we ever truly escape our past?”

The period known as “The Troubles” lasted from 1968 to 1998; on one side were the Protestant Loyalists who considered themselves British and wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Their opposition was the Catholic Republicans who wanted a free and united Ireland (joined with the southern half of the country).  The religious/political differences exploded into violence in ’68 and led to the formation of militant groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA).  Bombings became common occurrences in Belfast; the violence took the lives of more than 3,500 people. Neighbors attacked neighbors, walls and barricades divided areas of the city. “Lagan” tells the story of a few who remember this time of struggle, and of a younger generation living in the “new Belfast,” where there are still a few subtle scars.  Parallels can be drawn to our current political climate in that the recent election season revealed a class of Americans who feel angry and left behind in this age of globalism and technology.

Villanova’s production of “Lagan” continues the Theatre Department’s collaboration and exchange program with Ireland’s famed Abbey Theatre. Andrea Ainsworth, one of the leading voice and text specialists (and associated with the Abbey) serves as the production’s dialect coach.  She’s done a good job, as the actors’ accents are fairly consistent and authentic. I am the granddaughter of an Irish immigrant, and I am very familiar with the lilt of an Irish brogue.  The ensemble captures the musicality, but at times, the diction gets a little muddled.

One of the families featured in “Lagan” includes Anne, a very fastidious and judgmental woman, her closeted son, Ian, and her daughter Aoife (Eh-fuh), a confused, belligerent teen.  Megan Slater hits just the right notes as Anne, both amusing and annoying the audience. Allyce Morrissey’s Aoife is a lovely portrait of a girl on the cusp of true adulthood and overwhelmed by her circumstances.  Playing Ian, Chris Monaco shows us a burgeoning writer (in love with the turn of a phrase) who has chosen London over Belfast and struggles to fit in when he returns home.

The Taximan (a wonderfully sublime performance by Nikitas Menotiades) is trying to scrape by and raise his kids while caring for an unseen aging father.  Sisi Wright nicely captures the whimsy of a girl who is around six or so; it brought back many memories.  Two really sweet and deft performances are turned in by Kelly McAnally and Patrick McAndrew as Fiona and Emmet.  They capture the awkwardness of two people in their late teens experiencing love for the first time.  Kasey Phillips elicits sympathy as Joan, a mother who wanders the streets looking for her dead son—while ignoring the live one at home (Emmet). Rounding out the ensemble are Luke Hensley as Phil and Ian Notte as Terry. Both are damaged in their own way by the city’s turbulent past.

Ms. MacMillan directs this complex piece with great dexterity, allowing the lyricism of it to come through. “Lagan” is unusual in that most of the mono- and duo-logues consist of the characters describing their actions and feelings with only occasional actual conversations. Ms. Gregg is exploring the effects of an inability to really communicate with each other, something that has become more obvious with the advent of texting, e-mails and social media. Add the fallout from living in a city under siege for thirty years, it is no surprise many Belfastians have trouble opening up and trusting.

Meghan Jones off-kilter set of building exteriors and walkways is a great metaphor for the lives of “Lagan’s” characters. Jerold R. Forsyth provides his usual evocative lighting and Janus Stefanowicz costumes everyone perfectly. Add John Stovicek’s solid soundscape and the technical elements of this production are topnotch.

“Lagan” is not for everyone. If you don’t like non-linear storytelling, you may not enjoy. BUT—if you love to be challenged and to think as you are treated to a funny, insightful piece of theatre, then hurry to Villanova University to catch “Lagan”.  Remaining performances are on Feb. 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 at 8pm, and on the 19th at 2pm.  Villanova is located at 800 Lancaster Avenue, at the intersection with Ithan Avenue. To get to Vasey Hall, take that first entrance on Ithan.  For information and to make reservations, visit www.villanovatheatre.org or call the Box Office at 610-519-7474