Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 18, 2014

Dancing Lessons

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 24, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

The standing ovation for the world premiere of Mark St. Germain’s "Dancing Lessons" was well deserved. Yet, upon leaving the theatre, overheard was a wide range of comments by patrons that expressed divergent views on what worked in the production and what didn’t. There is a lot to like in this new work. John Cariani is quirky and compelling as a professor with Asperger’s Syndrome.  His charm and honesty provides much of the heart of the story. Paige Davis as an injured dancer clearly expresses frustration and anger as she faces a future she can’t control. 

Director Julianne Boyd weaves contemporary music into the fabric of the story to create a metaphorical dance of two people as they get to know and trust each other. One of the major challenges for a work dealing with autism is how to impart the peculiarities of the neurological condition to the public, and in this production, the writer, director, and actors are most effective when autism is shown, rather than described.

There are moments of brilliance in the script, but the play suffers from trying to cover too much territory. Short, staccato bursts of dialog at the beginning of the show are intended to set a pace, but they fail to establish a rapport with the audience. At times, information on autism becomes didactic, and a litany of names of famous people who may have been autistic seems unnecessary to establish the fact that autistic individuals can be brilliant. Clues to the dancer’s back-story are delivered through phone messages from someone who sounds like a character from "The Prairie Home Companion." Surprisingly, the ending, though not particularly original, works well and leaves the audience with a message of hope for these two individuals trapped in worlds they can’t control.

"Dancing Lessons" is appropriately titled, and the characters’ relationship creates a compelling story that touches our humanity and is ultimately moving. If some of the “extra information” embedded in the script were eliminated or downplayed, the basic questions of what we as individuals control, and what circumstances in our lives we would change if we could, are strong enough for the story to stand alone. As a new work, "Dancing Lessons" may not be perfect, but this production shows great potential for a script that will be produced often, and will touch many.