The Center Repertory Company presents Mark St. Germain’s comedy, Dancing Lessons, through November 17 at the Margaret Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts. The play premiered in Massachusetts in 2014.
The 90-minute romantic comedy tells the story of two people who are intensely challenged by their lives and how they struggle to overcome the isolation of those lives by interacting with each other. Senga (Sharon Rietkerk) is a dancer who has had an accident, tearing the ligaments around her knee. This is a severe injury, and if the ligaments are torn completely requires surgery to heal. But Senga has a problem with surgery. She has a genetic condition that means the necessary anesthesia is likely to kill her. Two of her relatives have already died under anesthesia.
Dancing means so much to her, however, that she is willing to risk the surgery, because without it her knee will never heal well enough for her to return to her career. Unable to go out because she is afraid rumors of her injury will ruin any future auditions, she sits at home, nursing alcohol and popping pain pills.
Ever Montgomery (Craig Marker) comes knocking at her door, and although she tries to get him to leave his sheer persistence leads to her insisting he come in, if only to keep the neighbors from listening in on the commotion at her front door.
So why is he there? A geoscientist specializing in climate change and species extinction, Ever suffers from Asperger’s, a milder form on the autism spectrum. Data is the only real world to him, and he only understands language literally. Social interaction is a disaster for him. Worse yet, he is afraid of being touched. But he is going to an awards ceremony where he will be expected to dance. He can’t dance, and the thought of dancing in public terrifies him. He wants Senga to teach him to dance, and he’s willing to pay her a week’s wages for an hour-long lesson. And then there’s the sexual pull that he feels toward her. And she toward him…
Neither of them wants these dancing lessons, but their loneliness leaves them with almost no other option than to face each other and dance.
Most of the comedy in the play is based on Ever’s inability to read what Senga is feeling and or saying to him. Which is part of the script’s problem. It’s hard to feel deep sympathy for Ever. Many of his speeches tend to be lectures, factual and dry, and a bit tedious. Only the interludes in which he briefly lectures on extinction are really gripping, and those tend to lie outside the main action of the drama. I found I had to pull my attention away from those moments to refocus on the two characters’ interaction, and at the same time I wondered why the play wasn’t about the more crucial and terrifying topic of planetary extinction.
As the two characters bumble on, trying to help each other in their individual predicaments, Senga and Ever reach a kind of love, and a friendship.
Well acted by Rietkerk and Marker and well directed by Joy Carlin, one of the preeminent figures in the Bay Area theater world, Dancing Lessons was appreciated by the audience, who clearly delighted in the various well-meaning awkward acts of the characters.
Kent Dorsey was the scenic and lighting designer and Brooke Jennings did costumes. Sharon Rietkerk is an accomplished dancer and choreographer Jennifer Perry put together dance scenes that favored her talents.
The play continues through November 19. For information and tickets, visit centerrep.org.
– Jaime Robles