KPBS AIRDATE: JUNE 7, 1995
The year is 1936, and it’s harvest-time in Ballybeg, an imaginary town in County Donegal, Ireland. Time for the annual festival of Lughnasa, dedicated to the pagan harvest god, Lugh.
Trapped in their poor, cramped home, isolated on the edge of a wheat field, four of the unmarried Mundy sisters want desperately to attend the festivities for the first time in years, but their stern oldest sister refuses. In a joyful, defiant burst of abandon, they break into dance right in their own kitchen, with a kind of crazy glee. That’s the signature scene in the highly acclaimed “Dancing at Lughnasa,” a gentle, dreamy evocation of a time, a place and a desolate group of characters.
Brian Friel is considered to be Ireland’s greatest living playwright. This quasi-autobiographical piece won Britain’s Olivier Award for best play of 1990, and captured three Tonys on Broadway in ’91. It is more quietly beautiful and more accessible than his “Wonderful Tennessee,” which the Globe brought to us last year, in a reverential production directed by Craig Noel.
Although Friel is most often compared to Chekhov, this haunting memory play is more like an Irish “Glass Menagerie,” a young man’s lyrical remembrance of the women in his life. The narrator, present-day Michael, the playwright’s alter-ego, walks in and out of the proceedings, sometimes commenting on the action, sometimes participating in it, making a liquid transition from adult to seven year-old and back.
These characters are trapped in their ordinary lives and unrealized dreams. The fragile family balance is about to give way. Most of the breakdown happens offstage, or by report. We only see the tiny movements, the foreboding shadow of the sorrows to come.
There’s a tremendous stillness to this play, and director Andrew J. Traister illuminates the surface calm. The production is powerful, highly compassionate; what it lacks is passion.
Paganism figures prominently in the play; it brings freedom, elation, excitement and more than a little danger, contrasting wildly with the staid, stodgy constraints of Christian dogma.
The dance scene should be transcendent, a moment of ecstasy. Here, it is spirited, but not impassioned. Same goes for the rituals described and reenacted by Father Jack, the oddball uncle who’s been sent home from his missionary work in Africa, because he’s “gone native.” Richard Easton is clearly distracted, confused. But when he lapses into those reveries of native ceremony, we should be transported; instead, we are merely informed. And finally, in the infrequent reunions of Michael’s estranged parents, there should be a stark contrast to the sterile frigidity of the sisters, but there is no palpable sexuality here.
Yet the five women are magnificent, each a stubbornly three-dimensional individual. Michael Learned makes the stern Kate both believable and sympathetic; Katherine McGrath’s Maggie is a deliciously cynical upstart. Robin Pearson Rose is grounded and wistful as Agnes, and Sally Smythe is charming as the slightly retarded Rose. It’s the men who don’t quite measure up.
But the enterprise is engaging, poetic. This play is a language-rich feast which should be tasted and savored.
Something else in the Don’t-Miss-It Department: Frank DiPalermo’s “Something in Common” at Diversionary Theatre. He plays five lonely characters at a bus stop — simultaneously and without costume changes. Be there!
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.