Early in “Dancing at Lughnasa,” the finely textured memory play by Brian Friel receiving an effective revival at Everyman Theatre, the narrator sets the scene — a rural Irish home shared by his relatives in the summer of 1936.
“Even though I was only a child of 7 at the time,” he says, “I had a sense of unease, some awareness of a widening breach between what seemed to be and what was, of things changing too quickly before my eyes, of becoming what they ought not to be.”
Friel, who drew on the experiences of his own family in fashioning this Tony Award-winning work from 1990, draws you steadily into that uneasy world. The gradual revealing of those things that “ought not to be” tints the play with the stuff of tragedy, yet there’s still a light left at the end, somehow, a glow from all that was good and kind and hopeful once upon that long-ago summer.
The late playwright shared with Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams a keen ability to open windows into the human spirit. In “Dancing at Lughnasa” — the title refers to an ancient Celtic festival at harvest time — the Chekhov connections are numerous, right down to an ill-fated bird. And the narrator device, of course, reminds you of how Williams employed it in “The Glass Menagerie” to look back on another fragile family.
But Friel’s own, very distinctive voice comes through everywhere in the absorbing story he spins of lives lived in the shadow of regret and dreams deferred.
Packed into a simple home outside a gossipy town, five unmarried sisters try to make ends meet and hold things together, each of them keeping an eye on Michael, illegitimate son of sister Chris. They’ve just been joined by their brother, Jack, a Catholic missionary priest, suddenly back after 25 years in Africa, now struggling with malaria and, it seems, with his faith.
Then there’s a periodic visitor, Michael’s charmer of a father, Gerry. He talks of marrying Chris when he finishes his latest business scheme or, more pressing still, a stint with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
There’s one more character, in a way. That would be the finicky radio the sisters call “Marconi,” which seems to have a mind of its own. When it functions, it changes the dynamics in the house as it pours out the beguiling sounds of big band hits or Irish folk dances, reminding the sisters of joys out there beyond the gate, past the narrow-minded villagers.
It is the radio that generates the play’s most explosive — in a good way — scene, when, one by one, the women feel the urge to dance, to drop every inhibition.
Everyman’s production, directed in sure, steady fashion by Amber Paige McGinnis, makes the most of that scene, ensuring an infectious jolt and letting you sense each sister’s innermost nature. You may feel caught in the uplift, too, and may, if only for a moment, believe the future will get brighter for these colorful women.
It’s not too much of a spoiler alert to note that the group dance, partway through Act 1, turns out to be the play’s emotional high, a peak the characters will not reach again.
That isn’t to say this is a total downer. There’s a certain beauty and warmth to the process of remembering those moments when life is fine, when people feel so close and special to you, when cares seem less pressing under a spell cast by nothing more than catchy, spirited music.
The well-knit Everyman cast digs deep into the material. There’s an authentic ring to the characterizations, if not the accents — excepting, of course, Northern Ireland-born Labhaoise Magee, who gives a finely detailed portrayal of Rose, the sister with a development disability and an extra-keen thirst for romance.
Brian Friel, the Tony Award-winning playwright who created "Dancing at Lughnasa" and more than 30 other plays, has died in Ireland at the age of 86.
By By Shawn Pogatchnik
Oct 02, 2015 at 8:06 AM
Bari Hochwald brings great breadth of expression to the role of Kate, the eldest and most serious sister, conveying the woman’s internal struggle to balance what’s expected with what’s desired. Hochwald says much with just the tilt of her head, the placement of her hands, even when sitting alone with her thoughts as a scene unfolds elsewhere onstage.
As the withdrawn, but hardly withered, Agnes, Annie Grier does exquisite work, especially when her eyes let you see the character’s repressed feelings for Gerry, played by the suave Danny Gavigan.
Katie Kleiger brings out the skepticism and infatuation that keeps Chris off-balance when sweet-talking, light-on-his-feet Gerry is around; the chemistry between Kleiger and Gavigan adds a charming layer to the production. In a glowing performance, Megan Anderson captures the spontaneity and physicality of decorum-shattering Maggie.
Bruce Randolph Nelson makes a strong impression as Jack, notably when the priest is at his most wistful about what he left behind in Africa. (Although Jack’s crisis of faith is the key point here, it’s hard, from our current perspective, not to imagine another reason whenever someone mentions how attached the priest had been to his Ugandan houseboy.)
Narrating from the sidelines as the adult Michael, Tim Getman gives the production a solid anchor. He also transitions smoothly when called on to deliver lines for the unseen young Michael.
Yu-Hsuan Chen’s literal set proves sufficiently evocative. David Burdick’s costumes reveal each character’s economic state, perhaps their psychological state, as well. Jay Herzog’s lighting adds some lovely nuances that help ease the play’s inevitable, darker turns.