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The texture of life in Dancing at Lughnasa
starts out so simply, so much a cross section of the everyday, so ordinary, laced as it is
with the comings and goings of quotidian life, the cooking, and cleaning, nattering, and
whining, the joking of the lives of the five grown sisters of the Mundy family in the
lonely hills two miles outside the tiny village of Ballybeg, Ireland. The theme of dancing
is introduced almost subliminally, as Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, and Chris move about the
kitchen of their small home. Five bundles of sexual energy and spiritual longing, they
spin around each other, like planets almost spinning out of control.
In this brilliant evocation of Friel's complex play, director Mary
Boyer has skillfully blended myth, character, humor, and dance. It is not dance that owes
anything to choreography, but is instead a spontaneous outpouring of the inner lives and
obsessions of the characters. Dance is one of the echoing themes of the play. There are,
deep in the hills, the bonfires of Lughnasa, a pagan rite left over from ceremonies
honoring Lugh, the god of the sun worshipped by the ancient Celts. A boy has been
painfully burned in this year's bonfire, and every character in the play will, by the
final curtain, be painfully, if only symbolically, burned as well.
Friel's play is narrated by a young man, Michael, the illegitimate
child of Chris, one of the sisters. Seven at the time of the action of the play, he moves
as a young man across the stage remembering that crucial year of his childhood. Friel
creates a powerful kind of irony by this fascinating and effective device which allows the
narrator to relate the sad endings to the lives of the characters who are holding on to
their tatters of hope and optimism.
The world of the five sisters is infiltrated by two visitors. One is
Uncle Jack, back from 25 years as a missionary tending to lepers in Uganda. He is ill,
suffering physically from malaria and spiritually from being cut off from his faith. His
faith, however, is no longer Catholicism but the powerful pagan beliefs and rituals of
Africa, not so different from what is going on in the Lugh-worshipping bonfires back in
the hills. Slowly he gets his health back, and just as slowly he begins to remember all
the English words he has forgotten. It is language, in all its complexity and
implications, Friel suggests here and in his other plays, that joins people together and
holds them apart.
The other visitor is Gerry, a peripatetic Welshman who blew through
Ballybeg seven years earlier and impregnated Chris, creating the narrator of the play,
Michael. Gerry visits now and then and, when he does, brings his own particular spin on
language: practically every word out of his mouth is a joke, a song lyric, or a lie. He is
charming, but utterly unreliable. Over and over, on his visits, he promises his son a new
bike, a black bike, a "man's bike," which never materializes.
If there are pagan elements back in the hills, there are also pagan
threats right here in the Mundy home. They have recently purchased a radio which brings
them the snappy dance music which the Church of 1936 deemed pagan indeed. One of the
sisters smokes, more paganism, and uses lipstick, and vociferously longs for a man to
"dance" with, even if he is fat and sweaty.
This is a play that could go disastrously wrong, but in this production
it goes magnificently well. The casting is perfect. Even though the five actors playing
the sisters don't really bear a family resemblance physically, they have achieved an
astonishing resemblance on a deeper level. They are very different, and at the same time
seem truly sisters, a tribute to the acting and the direction.
Mary Beth Kowalski plays Kate, the hard-faced, puritanical sister who
earns most of the meager family income and is the disciplinarian. In playing a character
that could easily become something of an unsympathetic villain, Kowalski finds the
complexity in the character. As Rose, a sweet and mildly retarded woman, Kathleen Fisher
manages to create a lovely kind of dignity. As Agnes, the plain sister who spends her days
knitting gloves until the glove factory comes to town, Elizabeth Anne Quincy, is excellent
in a role that could easily be overshadowed by her more boisterous sisters. Andrea
Fletcher, faced with the difficult task of playing Chris, the unmarried mother who must,
over and over, almost believe the charming lies of the usually absent Gerry, perfectly
embodies the all too human tendency to believe in the face of all the evidence to the
In this brilliantly acted ensemble of female energy and angst, Ann
Burrows stands out as Maggie. Maggie is the life force, the earthy, pagan, funny, sexy
woman who invariably finds sunshine amongst the shadows. In Burrows' acting there seems to
be no distance between her heart and her face and body; there is an emotional openness,
supported by impeccable vocal and physical technique.
Robert Olsen, as Uncle Jack, the Catholic/pagan priest, combines humor
and tragedy in a skillful blend. Fred Rueck, as the now-you-see-him, now-you-don't lover
of Chris, performs theatrical magic in making what is essentially a despicable bloke into
a likable, almost sympathetic character.
When direction is accomplished consummately well, as it is here by Mary
Boyer, it becomes invisible. There is the story, the characters, the language---with
nothing standing between the audience and the miraculous experience of the play. And
that's exactly as it should be.
New York, May 11, 2002
- Roy Sorrels