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Theater Review (NYC): Dancing at Lughnasa

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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.

Focused on August 1936, Dancing at Lughnasa captures a moment when both the young country of Ireland and the not-so-young Mundy women are at a tipping point. The drama is a memory play described in detail by the young boy, Michael (Zac Hoogendyk), grown now into a storyteller, much like his aunts. There are times when he strikes the audience as a more emotional version of Thorton Wilder’s Stage Manager.

The scenes move from tableau to the wild abandon in the famous dance of the title back to quiet contemplation, just like a flood of memories might travel through your mind. You stop and linger on one thought, you rush through another, not wishing to revisit that moment.

Dancing at Lughnasa was such a successful play for Friel, winning both a Tony and an Olivier for best drama, that it was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep as Kate, the eldest of the sisters, the breadwinner, the matriarch trying to keep her household intact against the strain of an Irish society who disapproves of just about everything that occurs in the Mundy home. Kate is a capstone role (hence the Streep mention), and Susan Ferrara clearly inhabits the role as comfortably as the grey cardigan she hugs to her shoulders.

Kate is the stern taskmaster, but Ferrara allows both self-doubt and humor to peek through the mask, as would be humanly real. She has expectations, and also understanding when they are not met. When Michael’s charismatic father Gerry (Jasper Soffer, above left) appears for a rare visit, Chris is flustered by the return of her lover. At first Kate is ill-humored; he is unwelcome—he has “no business coming here and upsetting everybody”—and she urges Chris to send Gerry packing, but then Kate melts at her beloved sister’s distress, folding her in her arms: “Of course, ask him in. And give the creature his tea. And stay the night if he wants to…but in the outside loft.”

An Irish drama is typically thought to be a wordy ordeal, but Dancing at Lughnasa is about the lack of words. Uncle Jack, compassionately played by Richard Vernon who is quite right in avoiding broad comedy, is constantly searching for the right word in English after his long stay in Africa. Many times, each sister is interrupted by her own thoughts while storytelling, a convention of Irish theatre turned upside down: “And that’s the last time I saw Brian McGuinness—remember Brian with the…?” Maggie never finishes her story. The whole evening is Michael’s story—his search for the right words to describe the hard lives of his mother and his aunts.

Friel, a master storyteller, tells this one with surprising silences, and director Heather Siobhan Curran is admirably not afraid of these moments. The frequent instances of touch, without words, are effective too. Like Kate’s embrace of Chris, Maggie’s character uses physical affection for her sisters, enhancing her character beyond the wit of the family. This is most notable with her demonstrative relationship with Rose, the “simple” sister, played by Kelsey Formost.

(L. Leigh Williams and Susan Ferrera)

Ms. Formost has some lovely moments, truly tugging at the heartstrings, but with her youthful looks, she might be better cast as Chris, the youngest of the sisters, although it would be hard to take away Leigh Williams’ perfectly presented transition to rare happiness (but not unqualified) upon dancing in the arms of her lover: “Her whole face alters when she’s happy, doesn’t it,” remarks Kate.

And speaking of dancing, there is some fine dancing with the Ballybeg stars when Gerry, a “strictly ballroom” dance teacher, twirls Chris and they dance cheek to cheek; but the evening belongs, and rightfully so, to the Mason’s Apron, a heavy reel that inspires the sisters to let everything go for just one moment of forgetfulness.

I saw Dancing on only its second night; I’m confident that as the run continues, the wild dance will become more and more raucous, as feral as the Lughnasa celebration in the back hill country of Ireland.

No matter how many times I see this play, I am surprised by how soon in the play the dance occurs. Memory always wants to put the scene at the end of the play, at a climactic point in the drama. Funny what memory will do.

Dancing at Lughnasa will be running through December 19. Photos by Bella Muccari.

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About Kate Shea Kennon