Dancing at Lughnasa
nytheatre.com review by Clinton Orman
December 11, 2010
Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by Heather Siobhan Curran at The Gallery Players, is a bittersweet memory play narrated by the adult Michael Evans (Zac Hoogendyk) recalling the late summer of 1936, during the Celtic festival of Lughnasa, in his mother and four aunts’ cottage in rural Ireland.
The play depicts the lives of the five Mundy sisters, Kate (Susan Ferrara), Maggie (Amanda McCallum), Agnes (Therese Plaehn), Rose (Kelsey Formost), and Michael’s mother, Chris (Leigh Williams), all unmarried, who live two miles from the fictional town of Ballybeg in County Donegal, Ireland.
The child version of Michael is a sort of half-presence in the play—when a character addresses him, the adult/narrator Michael delivers his lines standing off to the side. This device enhances the memory play aspect with a dream-like effect.
The women, though different in fundamental ways and not without their animosities, form an emotional support network for one another, with the eldest and main provider, Kate, acting as a sort of loose authority figure. Times are tough for the household. Kate is a schoolteacher, and Agnes and Rose earn a small income from knitting gloves. Poverty and insecurity about the future are constant themes.
Michael introduces us to a central character, “Marconi,” a radio the sisters have recently acquired, which works sporadically, filling this house at random moments with 1930s popular songs or traditional Irish tunes. The radio provides the sisters, at random bursts, with a release of tension and a glimpse of the hope and romance that is otherwise quite distant.
Two men also have an impact on the women’s world. The first is their frail elder brother Jack, a priest who has returned from working as a missionary in a leper colony in Africa. Partially due to a bout with malaria he has become mentally disoriented and constantly goes on about the religious customs of the native people from his mission—much to the embarrassment of Kate and, we gather, the upright local Catholic community. The other is Michael’s ne’er-do-well father Gerry, a Welsh charmer who comes and goes as he pleases and has no relationship with his son. Gerry is constantly promising new prosperity from his latest scheme and promising marriage to Chris. She sees through this but is still attached to him.
The play has a foreboding feel, and the women’s lives seem on the edge of new hardship on several fronts and Michael’s narration confirms that this is so. In fact their close-knit unit will soon break apart irretrievably. But the action of the play takes place in a relatively peaceful time before these events play out, in the last days of summer, as it were.
The writing in this well-known play is of course excellent. I found Gallery Players’ production to be exceptionally well produced and performed. I was especially impressed by Jared Rutherford’s set design, which along with along with Richard T. Chamblin III’s lighting, seems to give the actors a distinct and interesting space to inhabit, yet still subtly suggests the greater world outside its parameters.
The acting is splendid all the way around, which allowed me to become thoroughly lost in the story.
This is a very physical play, including of course the dancing of the title, but the characters are quite animated throughout the play in general; there is a good deal of interesting blocking which is a pleasure to watch, particularly Gerry, who is almost Chaplin-esque in his movements. Looking back, I wonder which bits were the work of choreographer Erin Porvaznika and which were of director Heather Siobhan Curran, or if the entire process was a collaboration.
I found the Gallery Players’ production of this play to be engaging and ultimately moving.