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Dancing at Lughnasa: A Friel Fest

photo by Gene Witkowski

Seeing Brian Friel’s 1990 play Dancing at Lughnasa again serves to remind us what a lush and masterful work this is. The smart and affecting Irish Classical Theatre Company production, under the direction of Derek Campbell at the Andrews Theatre, showcases the playwright’s dramatic power and eloquently demonstrates his close literary kinship to Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright with whom he is so often compared.

The year is 1936. Here we meet the Mundy sisters, living modestly in the fictional town of Ballybeg in County Donegal, Ireland. The play is narrated by Michael, now a grown man, who recounts events that took place when he was seven years old, before circumstances tore his loving family apart.

The five Mundy women are all unmarried, including Michael’s mother, Christina, who, at age 26, is the youngest sister. Christina has no paying job, and her status as an unwed mother brings no great honor to the family, though the child brings great joy.

Indeed, the only regular salary to come into the household is earned by Kate, the eldest, who is a schoolteacher. Kate clearly feels the pressure of this responsibility, and sees more keenly than the others how social pressures might disrupt their precarious lives. She acknowledges that she has become the monstrous and righteous bitch her sisters describe, but in her defense laments that no matter how hard she works to at her job to keep the family together, she can see the cracks forming everywhere and she correctly anticipates the impending collapse.

When the disaster arrives, there is nothing Kate can do. Far from the austere bitch she is perceived to be, we learn that she is inconsolable in her grief.

Kate is right to fear the moral punishments that small-town minds can inflict, without compassion, in retaliation for perceived morals lapses. And Kate knows all too well that a lapse by one member of the family reflects on all.

Friel has structured the play in a way that allows him to lavish the script with his genius for monologue and for Chekhovian indirect action, one complementing the other. None of the great dramatic turns in the lives of the Mundy sisters happens onstage. Instead, we hear about events secondhand, or through Michael’s narration.

The device of Michael’s narration allows the playwright to indulge in fulsome expanses of exquisite monologue at which he is second to none. This is a playwright who has devised entire evenings of monologue, in plays like Faith Healer and Molly Sweeney. Here, he artfully tells us each turn of fate in the lives of the Mundys before these twists occur, heightening the impact of each.

Among the momentous and pivotal events that take place offstage are Kate’s losing her job; Rose’s naïve romance with a man who is just taking advantage of her simple nature; and the arrival of industrialization that destroys the ability of Agnes and Rose to contribute to the family income. Add to this, Father Jack, the only brother among the Mundy siblings, being summoned home by the Catholic church for reasons so awkward that they are never fully explained. Was he sent home because he is ill, because of his uncommonly close relationship with his man servant, because he has “gone native,” or for all these reasons? Then there is the fact that Gerry is, despite his seeming willingness to marry Christina, secretly married already, with a family in another town.

Other twists and disappointments are more subtle still: the obvious attraction that Agnes feels for Gerry; the bitter disappointment that Maggie feels over the boy she loved falling for a close friend instead—and the girl ending up with another man entirely.

Layer upon layer of irony and disappointment accumulate with years that simply make the ache more painful.

The theme is clear. We must embrace happiness when we happen upon it, for life is uncertain and fate is beyond our control.

With the excellence of the script a given, the success of Dancing at Lughnasa lies in the charisma of the sisters as an ensemble. Here the Irish Classical Theatre excels with five talented and captivating actresses in the roles: Wendy Hall as austere and apprehensive Kate, Beth Donohue as the irreverent yet diplomatic Maggie, Katie White as secretive Agnes, Elizabeth Oddy as innocent Rose, and Andrea Gollhardt as tragically optimistic Chris. Volumes could be written about each character and each complex, subtle, and generously satisfying performance.

The men are also played skillfully: Chris Kelly as Michael, Thomas LaChiusa as Gerry Evans, and Gerry Maher as Father Jack.

The true star of the evening is, of course, Friel himself, who has certainly earned his reputation as one of the greatest playwrights alive. Dancing at Lughnasa is a masterpiece by a stunningly gifted playwright, and ranks among the great plays of our time. The production continues through March 10 at the Andrews Theatre.