Lindsay Crouse returns to Gloucester Stage Company to appear in Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” June 8-July 8
BY R. J. DONOVAN
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
Lindsay Crouse comes from theatrical royalty. The Oscar-nominated actress and educator is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Russel Crouse.
From 1935 to 1962, Mr. Crouse and his writing partner, Howard Lindsay, collaborated on such classic Broadway comedies and musicals as “Life With Father,” “The Sound of Music,” “State of the Union” and “Anything Goes.” Her name is a tribute to that iconic partnership.
Ms. Crouse’s equally impressive credits include performances in “Places in the Heart,” “All The President’s Men,” “The Verdict,” “House of Games,” and more.
For the past 12 summers, she has been a member of Gloucester Stage Company, where from June 8 to July 8 she will be appearing in Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa.”
What her fans may not know is that she’s been living in Gloucester for most of her life.
Just before Lindsay was born, the Crouses were enticed into visiting the area by family friends. Her Mom, Anna, loved old houses and found one in dire need of a little love. For $15,000, the Crouses purchased a 17-room Victorian residence with 30 acres of land.
Now in her own vintage home, Crouse says she adores the picturesque town and calls Gloucester her “soul home.”
In New York, the Crouses lived in a whirl of famous names and faces, among them Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.
“To grow up in a house of a writer is very different than growing up in the house of a celebrity actor,” she said during a recent interview. “We had the most extraordinary people in and out of our house, but my father was a very humble and a very real guy. There was no fuss made if Frederick March came through the door. There was no fuss made if Mary Martin sang at the piano.”
She added, “They were working craftsmen, all of them. Hard working! They didn’t make a fuss over themselves. I grew up in the atmosphere of that hard-working creativity . . . I think that stood me in good stead.”
Crouse’s connection with Gloucester Stage began more than a dozen years ago when the artistic director asked if there was a play she’d be interested in doing. Her children were still in school at the time and her summers were a time for rest, so she declined.
However, when Eric C. Engle became the director, he asked again. With her kids “sprung,” Crouse considered the offer more seriously. “I had loved ‘The Belle of Amherst’ ever since I had seen Julie Harris do it on Broadway,” she said, “and out of my mouth came, ‘I’d like to do The Belle of Amherst.’”
With a laugh, she continued: “I remember when he left I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ This is a 91-page play and you’re the only one on stage. How the hell are you going to do this?”
Such was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with Gloucester Stage. “I’ve been very fortunate,” said Crouse. “It’s been wonderful.”
“Dancing at Lughnasa” is a memory play, set in 1936 Donegal and focused on five unmarried sisters who live under the weight of poverty and financial insecurity. Their repetitive lives exist within a restrictive patriarchal system. But when a radio suddenly comes into their home, their world changes.
“Lughnasa” debuted at Dublin’s Abbey Theater in 1990. Productions followed in London and on Broadway, where it won the Tony for Best Play.
“It’s an extraordinary piece,” said Crouse. “You rarely find a play with this many rich and interesting female parts . . . They call Brian Friel the Irish Chekhov and in a way that’s quite apt, I think, in that he really knows how to celebrate a life lived on a very small scale, in a very limited area. But these women are huge souls and the play is poetic and magnificent. Just so moving. Very, very rich.”
Crouse plays Kate, the oldest sister and breadwinner. “Kate “represents the struggle of formal Catholicism versus the wonderful pagan traditions of Ireland,” she said, “the Lughnasa festival itself – the ceremony of the first harvest.”
During the festival, tradition dictates that the father of each family cut the first sheaf of wheat and proceed through a series of rituals. Then the wheat is ground to make cakes.
“Bonfires would be lit all night long,” said Crouse. “People would dance, they would drink, they would contract marriages and worse. It was a riotous evening at the height of summer.”
She has done a lot of historical research to get a sense of what the sisters would have been experiencing in 1936. “The famine was [ongoing] in 1845 so their grandparents would have felt the effects of it big time. The word famine doesn’t really describe it; it was a holocaust . . . The house they live in is more like a glorified hut. They’re dividing between them a couple of tomatoes and a couple of eggs for dinner . . . They’re very much living on the edge.”
Friel’s own mother and aunts inspired the story. And if audiences fear “Lughnasa” will be a depressing experience, Crouse points out, “It’s a play that has a lot of sadness in it, but it also has a lot of beauty and it’s very funny, actually. Their longings are really universal. Here is a family in the midst of very difficult times and their spirit is so extraordinary. The lyricism of this play really lifts them above it.”
Crouse recalls “a great playwright, I can’t remember who it was, saying the theater is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done. I feel that way about this play. To talk about . . . the really tough aspects of life . . . They’re a beautiful family, and there is a gorgeous female energy over the play that’s lovely . . . I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“Dancing At Lughnasa,” June 8 - July 8, Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA. Info: 978-231-4433 or gloucesterstage.com.