Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, by Richard Alfieri.
An Ensemble Theatre Co. production; at Alhecama Theatre, Friday, June 30. Shows through July 23.
Reviewed by Charles Donelan
Summer brings out a populist impulse in all the arts, and theater is no exception. Judging from the audience’s enthusiastic response opening night, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, intended as a crowd-pleaser, ought to be a hit. Director Robert Grande Weiss and Dance’s two stars, Mary Jo Catlett and Joseph Fuqua, have transformed a potentially maudlin story about people who need people into two different but equally powerful acts of very satisfying theater. The first half is nearly all comedy, and, although there are some moments of anger and a few not-so-dark shadows indicating what is to come, the laughs are steady, consistent, and well-earned. Act two plumbs the depths of these feisty combatants, revealing backstories full of trauma, regret, and unresolved love. The ending is bittersweet, but the overall impression is of laughing out loud, again and again, at clever things said by people you actually like.
Of the two characters, lonely senior Lily Harrison is the more fully realized on the page, but Joseph Fuqua does a marvelous job of fleshing out aging gay dance instructor Michael Minetti. Fuqua manages with confidence Minetti’s quicksilver changes between recklessly forward and coolly remote. Such strong early psychological defenses make the deep feelings that break through later on come across more believably.
Mary Jo Catlett’s consummate craft shows in every detail of her richly nuanced performance as the widow Lily Harrison. Her Southern accent doesn’t drift north, her physical characterization is precise and suggestive, and she never misses a punch line. Watching her take the heat of Michael Minetti’s banter and gradually warm to it is almost consolation for the sadness she embodies over the unhappy aspects of her life — past and present. Catlett, who already has the part down, will no doubt grow further into the life of her subject as this witty, tender production evolves. As a senior living on her own, Lily fears that she has become invisible to society — someone other people look right through. She need not be afraid. With Mary Jo Catlett onstage in the role, many happy theater-goers are going to see Lily Harrison very well indeed.