KPBS AIRDATE: June 15, 1994
There’s no such place as Ballybeg. It’s an imaginary town in Donegal, Ireland, but it bears a striking resemblance to the Glenties of playwright Brian Friel’s youth, and it’s the setting for most of his plays. In “Dancing at Lughnasa,” five unmarried sisters share a poor, cramped home in Ballybeg. The quasi-autobiographical piece won Britain’s Olivier Award for best play of 1990, and it captured three Tonys on Broadway in ’91. And now, in its Southern California debut, it’s found a quiet home in Orange County, at the South Coast Repertory Theatre.
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 through the imaginary walls of the set, sometimes commenting on the action, sometimes participating in it, making a superbly liquid transition from adult to seven year-old and back.
The year is 1936, and it’s harvest-time in Ballybeg, time for the annual festival of Lughnasa, dedicated to the pagan harvest god, Lugh. Four of the Mundy sisters want desperately to attend the festivities for the first time in years, but their stern oldest sister refuses. In a joyful, defiant, frenzied burst of abandon, they break into dance right in their own kitchen, with a crazy glee, in a moment of ecstasy that is absolutely transcendent.
Truly, it’s the one real piece of action in the whole play, which is otherwise a gentle and dreamy evocation of a time, a place and a desolate group of characters, including the cynical upstart Maggie and the energetic, slightly retarded Rose, as well as implacable Kate and confused Uncle Jack, the brother who returns from 25 years as a missionary in Africa, a burned-out “leper-priest” who has embraced paganism and seems to have lost his affinity for his native language.
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. Pagan ritual and pop culture override religion as escapes from the mundane. And mundane this world is. These characters are trapped in their ordinary lives and unrealized dreams. Outside, there is lush, verdant ripening; inside, there is the smell of decay. The fragile family balance is about to give way. But most of the breakdown happens offstage, or by report. We only see the tiny movements, the foreboding shadow of what is to become of this household of disillusionment.
There’s a tremendous stillness to this play, and director Martin Benson illuminates the surface calm. He focuses on the profound silences that are as important to the piece as the lush language, here in a place where nonverbal communication — a glance, a dance, a snippet of music — communicates as much as any lofty words. The production is powerful, and deeply compassionate. The five women are magnificent, each a stubbornly individual swatch from a generally colorless cloth. It is the men who don’t measure up; although Richard Doyle is a thoroughly engaging Michael, the portrayals of his irresponsible father and muddled uncle are not half as credible.
Most appropriately, everyone is dressed in shades of beige, and the suggestion of a substantial kitchen floats midstage, in front of a painterly, brush-stroked, impressionistic landscape. For us, as for the narrator, the story has the element of “a mirage of sound…” something “both heard and imagined.” Something felt, experienced — and not easily forgotten.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.