Like its title implies, ‘Dancing Lessons’ is a wonderful play about rhythm and connection, two qualities needed to properly dance with a partner. Except, in the play, it’s not really dancing that the two characters are learning but how to deal with each other, especially since one character falls under the spectrum of autism.
Ever Montgomery (played by Randy Villarama) is a science professor, who knocks on the door of Segna Quinn (played by Jill Pena), who lives in the same apartment building as he. He has just won an award and he needs Segna to teach him how to dance because he wants to be able to approximate proper social etiquette because his autism hinders him from what is considered normal human interaction.
Segna is a professional dancer, who has suffered a leg injury that may completely cut her off from her profession, the one true love of her life. She’s depressed and angry and when Ever steps over the line of politeness during their first conversation, she can’t refuse the amount he is offering for one dancing lesson.
What unfolds is a beautiful love story between two people who are on the opposite ends of life. One would think Ever’s condition would be a handicap yet he has managed to live a meaningful and successful life despite it while Segna is dealing with her handicap as the signal that it is the end of her life.
But these are themes that are never really talked about but rises above the play while Segna and Ever navigate the tricky landscape of human interactions between two people with very different ways of social interaction. At one point, Ever effectively articulates his thought process that we understand how difficult it is for him to have any real human interaction that isn’t awkward while Segna has to go beyond her own cynicism and frustration to effectively communicate with Ever.
The well-written play is fueled by Villarama and Pena’s wonderful performances. The contrast of both characters is so evident in their speech patterns — the monotonous tone and delivery of Villarama’s Ever as opposition to Pena’s easy-flowing delivery — or even in their navigation through space. Villarama’s Ever seems ever-aware of keeping distance to Pena’s Segna and his sharp movements while Pena is constantly struggling with a leg brace and is cautious not to upset Ever and his need for space.
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With my own personal interactions with people on the spectrum, I even appreciate Villarama’s mannerisms and ticks that I immediately recognise from my own observations, which grounded his performance to a wonderful degree.
It’s lovely to see Pena and Villarama’s exchange throughout the play because in itself it comes off as a form of dance.
The play is so lovely that I feel that some elements may have been unnecessary like some of the light cues, which underlined some beautiful scenes that didn’t need the emphasis or the two dancers that would appear to symbolise the internal world of both characters. I discovered that the dancers are really part of the script but it feels like overstating a point that the play beautifully illustrates on its own. But Kayla Teodoro’s stage design is wonderful as it creates such a wonderful open space out of Segna’s apartment, which gives the production a chance to breathe and really fly out of the stage and into the audience.
Written by Mark St Germain and directed by Francis Matheu, ‘Dancing Lessons’ is a wonderful two-hander play that finds humor and beauty in the awkward. It revels in the awkwardness and manages to subvert it into something joyful and precious without being saccharine or cloying. It’s essentially a love story and deep within its narrative movements, it manages to shine a light on the struggles of autism and the fear of change. Like in love or in dance, it asks us to be brave and you can really feel that in this production.