Lughnasa is a harvest festival held over from Ireland's pagan past; a time of dancing, feasting and letting go of the pain that seems to be such a staple of life on that small, green island.
But for sisters Christina, Maggie, Agnes, Rose and Kate, repression runs so deep that letting go emotionally just isn't in the cards.
In Brian Friel's play, "Dancing at Lughnasa," which is in production at The Colonial Players of Annapolis, we meet this sad brood through the eyes of Michael, son and nephew, as he relives a summer of his youth in Ireland some 58 years after the fact.
What an extended family he had! His mother, Christina, was a subdued, lovesick girl who conceived him out of affection for a charming, ne'er-do-well salesman who never did commit himself to her.
There's Aunt Kate, the matriarchal oldest sister whose pessimistic intrusions toss an emotional straitjacket over her sisters' lives, fomenting a rebellion that ends in great tragedy.
Gentle Agnes the seamstress is the family caretaker; a dreamer who yearns for the revelry of Lughnasa so badly she can taste it. "I want to dance," she says with heartbreaking simplicity. "I'm only 35."
Maggie is the spitfire; naughty, irreverent and, oh, so loyal, while young Rose is warm of heart, slow of mind and desperate to know love.
Together the sisters raise young Michael and care lovingly for their brother Jack, a missionary to Africa who has suffered a physical and emotional breakdown. But for all their acts of goodness, they prove hopelessly unable to inspire that elusive happiness in each other's lives.
Lughnasa is too little, too late. Their Act I dance together is a moment of extraordinary release, but the moment is achingly short. And it is clear that all their emotional baggage will keep it from ever happening again.
For the most part, the performances are excellent.
CeCe Newbrough dominates as a wonderfully feisty Maggie whose personality is as tough as her pugnacious Irish brogue. Dianne Hood broke my heart numerous times as the touchingly vulnerable Agnes, as did Diane D'Aiutolo as the sad Christina.
I also admired Sue Bell's portrayal of Rose. She played her simply, with no trace of condescension.
A notch down, but still quite good, were Lois Evans as Kate, the indomitable pain-in-the-neck; Tim King as the adult Michael; Kurt Dornheim as brother Jack, and Stephen Collins as the affable, dimwitted salesman who took advantage of Christina's affection.
The problem, however, was with the Irish accents. Some were excellent; some pretty good. But Kate and Jack stayed in American dialect all the way. Someone was asleep at the aesthetic switch on this one.
And why should accents matter so much? Because this is a talk, talk, talky play from the get-go. Save for that wonderful explosion of dance in the first act, there is no physical action to speak of.
Nada. Zilch. Characters reminisce. They confront. Michael narrates. They reminisce some more. The flaming emotional crack-up involving two of the sisters? We don't see it; Michael narrates it.
Not only do they talk often, they talk long. One of the sisters says that she'd like to live for a time "as if language didn't exist; as if words were unnecessary."
I admired much about this play but, by the end of the evening, I knew exactly how she felt.