Irish Repertory’s DANCING AT LUGHNASA: Poignant and Utterly Charming

by Patrick Maley

(Pictured, l-r:) Jo Kinsella (Maggie), Annabel Hagg (Chris), Aedin Moloney (Rose) and Rachel Pickup (Agnes) in the 20th anniversar y production of Brian Friel's DANCING AT LUGHNASA at Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd St, New York, NY), directed by Charlotte Moore. (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

To dance is to achieve a release from the bounds of stringent everyday movement, to resist the mundane and the natural, and to propel one’s self into an alternative, if temporary, physical existence, defined less by function than by a wonderfully imperfect harmony of movement and music. To dance is to be neither where one is nor where one is going, but to step momentarily into a space of revelry. To dance, ultimately, is to free one’s self from care. Whimsical, poignant, and utterly charming, The Irish Repertory Theatre of New York’s production of DANCING AT LUGHNASA shows us five adult sisters struggling to reconcile their allure to this dance spirit with their mundane and at-times oppressive day-to-day lives. Playwright Brian Friel’s late masterpiece is an honest and sympathetic examination of rural Ireland’s gradual loss of innocence, and under the direction of Charlotte Moore, this production masterfully expresses that loss in its portrayal of five sisters who are never able to embrace fully the release of dance.

DANCING AT LUGHNASA covers three weeks in the lives of the Mundy sisters in late summer, 1936. None of the women are married, and so they live together and share the duties of the house: Kate teaches school and brings in some money, Maggie cooks, Agnes and Rose knit gloves for sale, and Christine, a single mother, helps around the house while looking after her seven-year-old son, Michael, born out of wedlock.

The audience, however, never sees the seven-year-old boy. In his place is an adult Michael, seen only by the audience, but heard by the other characters as he delivers the lines of the boy. DANCING AT LUGHNASA is in fact the dramatization of adult Michael casting his mind back on the summer of 1936, examining a time of great change for his family, village, and country. He is the play’s narrator, and its events are his memories. The play becomes a story of innocence lost, told through the eyes of an innocent. As with Tennessee Williams’s great American memory play, The Glass Menagerie, all the events of DANCING AT LUGHNASA are inflected by the narrator’s perspective, but Mr. Friel’s use of a child rather than a cynical and self-loathing adult gives his play a refreshing and frank clarity. Michael’s memories allow little room for judgment, bitterness, or even romance. We see only what an adult remembers seeing at seven years old, and are left to decide on our own where our sympathies lie.

Ciaran O'Reilly as Michael in the 20th anniversar y production of Brian Friel's DANCING AT LUGHNASA at Irish Repertory Theatre through December 11. (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

This production’s set is the country kitchen familiar from much Irish drama—stove, table, fireplace, sparse furniture—with one important addition: a small Marconi radio, which was a new phenomenon in 1936 Ireland. The radio is the play’s most poignant symbol of the Mundy sisters’ struggle: out of it comes music and, in turn, the spirit of dance, but it is unreliable, often breaking or merely running out of battery power, leaving the women with no avenue for emotional and physical release. Their desire for that release emerges periodically throughout the play. An early scene shows the sisters entertaining the idea of all attending the upcoming harvest dance for the Festival of Lughnasa, which they frequented as children but have not been to in the years of adulthood. Agnes introduces the idea of going now, as adults, and each of her sisters by turns excites to the point of giddiness. The thought of embracing the dance spirit infects each woman, as the actresses vividly capture a sense of quietly desperate need for release, before Orlagh Cassidy’s ever-pious Kate regains control of her emotions, and squelches the idea. Kate is the eldest sister, and Ms. Cassidy’s performance nicely embodies Kate’s conflicting senses of responsibility, at-times positivist Christian morality, and a personal need for release and joy.

The truest dance spirit powerfully infects the Mundy sisters in the play’s most famous and marvelous scene. The radio plays Irish dance music as the women busy themselves with chores, but Maggie is gradually overcome. She slowly pounds her foot before tossing her head back and letting out a wordless yelp. From there she gives in and dances wildly and freely around the kitchen, alone at first, and then with Rose who she pulls off a bench to be her partner. Agnes and Christine soon join, as the four youngest sisters pound their feet and whirl their skirts, each letting out primal whoops in turn. The spirit proves too powerful for even pious Kate, who eventually joins the dance. Kate’s dance is distinctive, though: as her sisters stomp and whirl in a joyous frenzy, Kate moves through very classical and regimented Irish dance steps. Her dance is joyous, to be sure, but it is a joy within structure, while the others simply bust out of all bounds. This disparity captures much of the conflict of the Mundy home: Kate’s efforts to keep order and Christian piety often conflict with her sisters’ urges for release. The Mundy dance soon ends when the radio gives out, and the sisters move immediately from revelry to tension.

A scene from Irish Repertory Theatre's production of DANCING AT LUGHNASA: Kevin Collins (Gerry) and Annabel Hagg (Chris). (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

In a production rife with strong performances, Jo Kinsella’s Maggie, Annabel Hagg’s Christine, and Ciaran O’Reilly’s Michael deserve particular attention. Ms. Kinsella steals a number of scenes with an at-times sardonic humor, but she manages also to show care for her sisters, and striking tenderness in her scenes with the unseen child Michael. As Christine, the youngest sister and the single mother, Ms. Hagg succeeds in showing her character’s tension between forced maturity and a lingering baby-of-the-family ethos. Her performance is most touching when she shows Christine’s moments of girlish weakness to the charm of Michael’s sweet-talking father, Gerry. Finally, Mr. O’Reilly has the unique task of having to project a sense of removal from these events as the narrator, but also having to espouse a seven-year old sensibility when giving voice to young Michael. The always-subtle childishness he takes on in those moments refuses to allow the play’s audience to forget the murky frame through which this play is presented.

With DANCING AT LUGHNASA, Mr. Friel left the politics of plays like Freedom of the City or Translations on the furthest outskirts, but national concerns of modernization, industrialization, and religious uncertainty are far from ignored. The Irish Repertory Theatre’s production portrays well the deep connections between the family unit and its rapidly evolving social context. Aware at all times that unhappy change is on the horizon, this DANCING AT LUGHNASA wonderfully captures the sense of bittersweet nostalgia expressed by an adult Michael remembering fondly the experience of his mother and aunts as they fought for understanding and unity during three turbulent late-summer weeks. The spirit of the dance inflects this whole production as it examines the gradual movement away from and out of reach of that spirit’s vibrancy.

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Charlotte Moore
October 20, 2011 – January 15, 2012 – EXTENDED!
The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
New York, NY, 10011

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