Andrew Gumm and Michelle Marie Trester in "Dancing Lessons." Photo by Ken Jacques
Surviving on booze, Bugles snacks and hope against hope that she’ll ever appear on stage again following a serious leg injury, Broadway dancer Senga Quinn is in no mood when an upstairs neighbor crashes her pity party. It doesn’t help that Ever Montgomery, a literal-speaking geosciences teacher, wants her to teach him how to dance in time to survive an ordeal of his own: an upcoming awards dinner, which will be followed by dancing. Ever is willing to pay for it: $2,153 in cash for just an hour’s lesson. So how can Senga, even hobbling around with one leg in a brace, say no?
She doesn’t, and along the way in playwright Mark St. Germain’s “Dancing Lessons,” both she and Ever learn a great deal, about each other and about themselves.
Scripps Ranch Theatre’s production of the 2014 play by St. Germain (“Freud’s Last Session,” “Camping with Henry and Tom”) is a charming 80-minute tale in which two gifted but self-isolated people, each low on confidence and aching with doubts, forge a friendship, then an unlikely romantic attraction and most important, an understanding.
Senga (Michelle Marie Trester) has a rare allergy to anesthesia, making any surgery to repair her leg and perhaps restore her career a dangerous risk. Ever (Andrew Gumm) has Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. For him, expression of genuine emotion and even human touch are risks of their own. To Ever, Senga is, clinically speaking, a “neurotypical.” This perception will change.
The strength of St. Germain’s play is how easily its comedy springs from the divergent emotional wavelength between Senga and Ever, who come to enjoy each other and more in spite of the disconnect. At the same time, the weight of each’s circumstances is never glossed over, nor does sentimentality ever rule the day. If the narrative has a weakness it’s the late-arriving complication of Senga’s anguish over who her father is or was, presented as one reason why her personal crisis might be about more than her leg injury.
No matter. At Scripps Ranch, with Meg DeBoard directing, Gumm and Trester make a credible and thoroughly engaging pair intuitive about their characters. Seen last year in broader comedy roles at not only SCT (“Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”) but at the Roustabouts Theatre Co. (“Romeo, Romeo & Juliet”), North Coast Rep (“Blithe Spirit”) and New Village Arts (“Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”), Trester demonstrates depth and sensitivity as Senga. The telltale scene in which she encourages the reluctant Ever to chance a handshake, then an air kiss and then a hug is a tender one, subtly played.
Ultimately the lesson of this story is not about dancing at all, but about taking those chances and challenging those unknowns in the face of fear and self-doubt. As Ever tells the unseen crowd as he accepts his award: “Change equals courage.” (Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 1/29/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.