Dancing at Lughnasa is a study in the fruitless struggle against the collapse of everything. Sweet and melancholy, it is the story of the doomed Mundy sisters, told from the decades-later perspective of the youngest daughter’s son,
Michael Evans (Colin Smith). “Lughnasa” is a harvest festival dating back to pagan times, but there’s no dancing allowed in the Mundy household. Domineering oldest sister Kate (the excellent Kerri Rambow), whose teacher’s salary provides the household’s sole regular income, makes sure of that.
Ah, but what powerful forces control the world, and, as Brian Friel’s lucid script and Keegan Theatre’s excellent production make clear, how helpless we are to hold them off. Kate’s sharp tongue cannot deter Michael’s father Gerry (Matthew Keenan) from wandering into their lives again, and cannot prevent Michael’s mother Christina (Brianna Letourneau) from twisting up in joy when he arrives and in heartbreak when he leaves. Nor can the relentless good cheer of sister Maggie (Susan Marie Rhea) forestall poverty as it casts its shadow over the household, and not all the sisters together can fully protect simpleminded Rose (Emily Levey). And when their uncle Jack (Kevin Adams), a missionary who has spent most of his adult life in Uganda, arrives half-crazed and malarial at their door, none of them are the equal to his deeper secrets.
Here: if you have ever wondered what the phrase “hardscrabble farm” means, you can see it in 1936 Ballybeg, Donegal, as represented by George Lucas’ superb set. The five sisters, including Agnes (Elizabeth Jernigan), who along with Rose, makes gloves to supplement the family income, busy themselves in a kitchen where a rough bench serves as the table. A battery-operated radio – they call it “the Marconi” – periodically, and without reason, fades in and out, much as the sisters’ contact with the world outside Ballybeg fades in and out. Outside, a clutch of fox-threatened chickens herded by a white rooster constitute the farm’s sole provenance; one night, three eggs will be made into dinner for seven family members and a guest. The boy sits in the dirt trying to make a kite; it is beautiful, but it never gets off the ground.
Dancing at Lughnasa is not airborne either, but it is sufficient that it is beautiful. Friel has a half-dozen opportunities for over-the-top tension and drama in creating this piece, and walks away from all of them. They are in portentous times – Gerry is about to go to Spain to fight for the Republicans – and Rose, who has a vibrant heart to go along with her child’s mind, has them constantly on the edge of calamity. A neighbor lad, drunk, burns himself in one of the bonfires that celebrate Lughnasa. Friel refuses to exploit any of it in the conventional way. He also resists the urge to select a conventional resolution for the relationship between Gerry and Chris, and instead adopts the ending most likely to occur in real life.
In short, Dancing at Lughnasa is a play for grownups, and co-directors Mark Rhea and Abigail Isaac give it an assured, deliberate presentation. They are helped by first-rate acting. The sisters – unmarried, and in their thirties, in a time and place where women married young – have a vague apprehension of their fate, but chase away the demons with their relentless optimism. If you have ever had the privilege of knowing someone like Rose, you will recognize her instantly in Levey’s portrayal, and you will understand why the other sisters are so much in fear for her. Rhea’s Maggie, like Rambow’s Kate, is a plain-spoken woman used to having her own way, and when they clash, we never forget how much they love each other. In Adams’ hands, Father Jack is a gentle man whose heart is still in Uganda, and so is like every missionary I have ever met – in love with the place he was sent to convert. You can tell everything about Gerry Evans – his self-mocking charm, his seductiveness, his unreliability – by the way Keenan walks onto the set, hat at a jaunty angle and walking stick crooked under his arm. And Smith’s Michael gives an unsentimental narrative, slipping, when necessary, into the voice of the young (and rather snotty) boy with the kite.
There are fewer differences between rural Irish folk seventy years ago and Americans of the present day than we would perhaps like to admit. The Mundys ward off the dark forces by invoking God and the principals of their Catholic religion (the house is festooned with religious pictures) while we, a secular society, invoke science or pseudoscience, but it is all the same. Kate calls on the authority of Pope Pius XI as her modern clone might cite Dr. Phil, but to Friel both efforts are fruitless. The old forces – be they the relentless fox outside the chicken coop, or the pagan ways, in Ireland as in Uganda – are patient and insatiable, and will make their way through all the pavement and civilization.
Dancing at Lughnasa
By Brian Friel
Directed by Mark Rhea and Abigail Isaac
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
DANCING AT LUGHNASA