Ensemble mounts romantic comedy “Dancing Lessons”
When: June 13 – 30. 8 p.m. Weds through Sats, 2 and 7 p.m., Sundays; 7 p.m. Tuesday (June 18); 4 p.m., Saturday (June 22)
Where: The New Vic, 33 W. Victoria
Cost: $65 – $75, $25 (student)
Information: (805) 965-5400 or etcsb.org
In Mark St. Germain’s “Dancing Lessons,” two unlikely people become neighbors. One is a former dancer sidelined with a devastating injury, unsure if she’ll ever perform again. The other is a man who wants to learn to dance for an upcoming event but has a form of Aspergers and does not like human contact. That sets the stage for a charming and moving romantic comedy, and Ensemble has brought back director Saundra McClain (Frankie and Johnny, In the Continuum, and others) to direct this delicate duet.
“This is a different kind of project for me but I’m having a blast,” she says. “I have a delightful cast.”
Leilani Smith, who plays Senga, was last seen in Intimate Apparel (also directed by McClain) and she starts alongside Trevor Peterson, who just played Biff in Ensemble’s “Death of a Salesman”, playing Ever
“I tried to get at the heart of the piece,” she adds. “The comedy is already there in the lines. I’m trying to get to the truth of the character.”
In an odd coincidence, McClain had a neighbor back in her early 1990s New York days that had Aspergers. “I watched him grow up. (People with Aspergers) feel very deeply but they don’t always show it. But when they do show it it’s off the Richter scale, bigger than life.”
And also this coincidence: McClain was laid up for a year, waiting for knee surgery, because she’d had such a bad reaction to the anesthetic that she died for 30 seconds on the table, a fact that almost exactly mirrors Senga’s predicament in the play. She has to choose between a life without dance, or run the risk of dying in surgery.
Despite Senga’s injury, she does have to move later in the play, and McClain has brought in a choreographer just for that. The actress does have a black belt in karate, so she is fast on her feet.
“I’ve worked with her four times,” says McClain of Smith. “and in every show she’s had to be something she’s not. She’s had to play a pianist in one show, and a singer in the other. It goes to show, never underestimate actors. I’ve never seen an actor work this hard. She rides her bike to rehearsal every day, she goes to the gym every day, she’s living and breathing the character.”
In recent years autism and its many shades have been tackled in theater with more and more understanding. “You can’t ‘fix’ autism,” McClain says. “It’s not an ‘illness.’ They feel things in a different way. And you begin to realize a lot of our geniuses are autistic, because they have that ability to pinpoint and focus.”
With two such unlikely characters on stage the whole time, “Dancing Lessons” handles their romance with a deft, believable touch. McClain describes Senga as living in a delusion. “But Ever can’t not tell the truth. He sees through her. So both of them help each other to heal, so they can stop hiding from the world.”