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Essence of romance

Review by Ivy Wigmore

(Spoiler Alert)

It would be fair to say they got off on the wrong foot. Senga Quinn, played by Melissa Kramer, is in hiding from the aunt who raised her and also from a former fiance. Senga is a small-town girl who came to New York City to pursue a promising career in dance. As the play opens, we find her slumped on her couch, surrounded by the booze, pills and junk food she’s turned to after a car accident has all-but taken her dream away. Senga has been told that she will likely have to wear a full-leg brace for the rest of her life. She’s holed up in her apartment when a fateful knock comes on her door.  

Ever Montgomery, played by Jeff Schissler, is a professor of geophysics with Asperger’s syndrome. He has a problem — well, he has a few, but the most pressing one is that he’s being given an award at an upcoming gala. He fears he will be expected to dance, and dance he cannot. So Ever devises a plan: he does his research on the dancer downstairs and comes knocking on Senga’s door. When she finally lets him in, he offers her a huge sum of money to teach him to dance.

A fast song, and the faster the better. No slow songs, he insists, because he does not like to be touched. And so they begin, Senga all rhythm and sensuality and Ever all herky-jerky movement, but game. When she asks him to smile to indicate that he’s having a good time he assures her that he is not. Nevertheless, he bares his teeth and continues to fling his arms and legs according to no discernable pattern. 

Ever is relentlessly, irrepressibly honest, unsubtle and laser-focused while Senga is depressed, embittered and sarcastic. The two could hardly have less in common. And yet, as more is revealed about Senga’s past, enough boxes are ticked in Ever’s head that he asks her if she’s ever been tested for autism. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience silently ticking a box or two, reminded that we all carry little bits and pieces of various disorders.

Schissler was spot-on: we see Ever, despite being so physically and verbally awkward, driven to continue to flail on, trying to accomplish his goals. We feel his anguish at the failure to navigate social interactions and courtship rites that so-called neurotypicals take for granted. Kramer’s performance was necessarily subdued in comparison but she conveyed her character’s despair with a quiet power. 

Both characters are severely constrained by their individual circumstances: Ever by autism and Senga by her injuries. I must admit I wondered how the hell the play would ever strike a romantic spark out of these two particular sticks. They transition from dancing to a “practice” touching session to a not-very romantic romantic interlude.  

Somehow they get there, though — there are no wrong steps when Melissa and Ever take their final turn around the floor. In formal wear, the couple are the essence of romance: no limping, no awkwardness and no stumbles. Although there were a lot of great moments in the play that’s the one that stays with me, the revelation of that perfection as the characters were depicted free of the damage and baggage accumulated bumping up against life. 

Mark St. Germain’s Dancing Lessons is a bit of a marvel, mixing tragedy, humor and romance, while also delivering a good deal of information about autism and global warming — all with a light and deft touch that ensures all the pieces fit together convincingly and enjoyably. 

—On stage at Victoria Playhouse in Victoria-by-the-Sea to July 29, 2018.

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