Actresses, Irish and otherwise, should always send Brian Friel flowers of appreciation on his birthday (calendar entry: January 9th) for he wrote one of the great plays in the English language for an actress—many actresses, in fact. The Gallery Players in Brooklyn are presenting Dancing at Lughnasa with some outstanding performances on the occasion of this canonical play's 20th anniversary of appearing at the Abbey Theatre.
There's Chekhov and his Three Sisters (Friel is a big fan), and then there is Friel and his Five Sisters. While there is no yearning for Moscow amongst these Irish women, there is heartache all the same—small-scale stuff compared to Chekhov's aristocrats perhaps, but desire is desire despite the scale. Friel's sisters, who struggle to live and work in a small town in rural Donegal, Ireland, want to go to the harvest dance, to keep a job, to own a working radio—is that too much to ask? Yes, it turns out it is. This is Irish drama, after all.
In the beginning of the play, there is a moment when a first-time viewer may wonder just how to differentiate these middle-aged women, dressed alike in drab dresses and drabber aprons, all living in impoverished isolation while caring for an ill uncle and a young, fatherless child.
Christina (Leigh Williams, above left) complains that their Uncle Jack, who has returned from a 25-year missionary service in Uganda much the worse for wear, can't tell one sister from the other: "Sometimes he doesn't know the difference between us. I've heard him calling you Rose and he keeps calling me some strange name like..." Some of their names even rhyme—Aggie and Maggie. It is as if Friel is daring you to dismiss the women much like their town of Ballybeg does.
Are they women of no importance, to borrow a title from Friel's compatriot, Oscar Wilde? This production, under the direction of Heather Siobhan Curran, ensures that you will not shrug off these characters nor their concerns, seemingly provincial at first, but very much universal: love, fulfillment, happiness. Within minutes, there is no confusion between Aggie (Therese Plaehn), the tender beauty of the family, and Maggie ( the charming Amanda McCallum,) a comedienne every bit as wild as the Wild Woodbine cigarettes she smokes.