North Coast Rep returns to live performances with ‘Dancing Lessons’

Christopher M. Williams and Leilani Smith in North Coast Repertory Theatre's "Dancing Lessons."
(Aaron Rumley)

The 2014 dramedy is about an injured dancer and a man on the autism spectrum who are facing personal crises


Mark St. Germain’s play “Dancing Lessons” premiered in 2014, but its subject matter seems ideal for a nation struggling to emerge from pandemic and theater artists returning to their craft after 18 months away.

The play is about Ever, a college geosciences professor who is on the autism spectrum. He arrives at his neighbor Senga’s apartment to ask her for dance lessons so that he can fit in at an important work event. Senga is a Broadway dancer who has been hiding in her apartment since a car struck her leg months before. Her injury is so severe, she may never dance again and she fears lose her identity.

Opening Wednesday, Sept. 8 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, “Dancing Lessons” marks the Solana Beach theater’s return to live performances. Proof of full vaccination and face masks will be required, with some exceptions. Details can be found on the company’s website.

Director Richard Baird said Senga’s self-enforced isolation and Ever’s personal aversion to physical touch may feel familiar to pandemic-weary show-goers.

“She’s been in quarantine long before any of us have, and Ever won’t be touched,” said Baird, who is directing his fourth play at the Solana Beach theater and has appeared there as an actor in 32 plays since 1999. “Touch is such an extremely powerful sensation, and we’ve had to learn to go without it and fear it. This play is about conquering those fears. In that sense, it’s a really beautiful play to come back with.”

The 90-minute “dramedy” is the third play North Coast Rep has produced by St. Germain, who also wrote “Becoming Dr. Ruth” and “Freud’s Last Session.” Baird said that because “Dancing Lessons” features fictional characters, it gave St. Germain more freedom to get creative with his script and write about a variety of societal and environmental issues.

In the play, Ever describes his developmental disability as Asperger’s syndrome, which causes him to miss social cues and have physical tics. The role will be played in this production by Christopher M. Williams, North Coast’s longtime associate artistic director. To prepare, Baird said Williams has spent a lot of time reading, watching videos and doing research on the autism spectrum to fine-tune his performance.

Senga will be played by Leilani Smith, an actor Baird met in 2019 while they were both performing at Ensemble Theatre in Santa Barbara. He was there starring in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” and she was there playing Senga in “Dancing Lessons.”

“I’d seen her, and I knew how good she was, so I was excited to have her here,” Baird said. “Part of the joy of working with her in our production is that she’s completely different in the role. She’s finding all sorts of new things in her character.”

Baird said that when audiences first meet Senga and Ever, it’s Senga who has the most challenges relating to others. She’s in a state of grief because she has lost the one way she expresses herself, and she doesn’t know how to communicate anymore. But with Ever’s help, they both find their way forward.

“Everyone’s brain and body functions differently, as does our experience of the world,” Baird said. “Society makes a gross error when it attempts to force humankind into a specific mold. ‘Dancing Lessons’ celebrates our differences.”

“Dancing Lessons”

When: Opens Wednesday, Sept. 8and runs through Oct. 3. Showtimes, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 7 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Plus 2 p.m. Sept. 10 and 29.

Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

Tickets: $54-$60

Phone: (858) 481-1055