Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Dancing at Lughnasa"

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note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Carl A. Rossi


by Brian Friel
directed by John Fogle

Michael ... Mark Jeffery
Rose ... Brigid Battell
Kate ... Janet Sheehan
Chris ... Jennifer Moussa
Maggie ... Linda Goetz
Gerry ... Michael Letch
Agnes ... Kimberly Schaeffer
Jack ... Jim Grana

Brian Friel’s masterpiece DANCING AT LUGHNASA depicts daily life among five spinster sisters living together in Ballybeg, Ireland, in 1936: Kate, the eldest, lectures her sisters on Thou Shalt Not; Maggie, the family clown, is ever ready with a quip and a cigarette; Agnes and the mentally-challenged Rose are already blighted souls; Christina, seduced by a wandering Welshman, raises their son Michael on her own. The women’s brother Father Jack comes home in poor health after twenty-five years of missionary work in a Ugandan leper colony; Kate expects their brother to resume his local preaching but, instead, Father Jack has been swayed by the pagan life force. Gerry, Christina’s lover, wanders back into her life with promises of marriage; the play is narrated by the grown Michael who doubles as his younger self, the latter being invisible to the audience but still spoken to by the other characters. The play’s title refers to a harvest festival where the townspeople dance in wild abandon; Kate forbids her sisters to attend but in the play’s most celebrated sequence the quintet execute a jig to music issuing from Marconi, the family’s temperamental radio --- gently, inevitably, Michael foreshadows his family’s changing fortunes which make their various fates all the more poignant in impact. This is a lovely, lovely mood-play, and the awards that DANCING AT LUGHNASA won on both sides of the Atlantic are well-deserved.

Having recently given an Addison for Best Dramatic Ensemble to the TCAN Player’s golden DANCING AT LUGHNASA, I am delighted that the current one at the Arlington Friends of the Drama works just as true from a different approach, altogether. The TCAN evening was one of hearty “Irish”-ness; at the Arlington, all is subtler, sadder, more Chekhovian: one feels that there is not enough sunlight to make green the countryside and that living in the shadow of the Church has stunted the sisters, themselves; even their jig becomes a last gasp of the animal force rather than resulting from everyday zest. John Fogle has directed with the same loving hand that was demonstrated in Mr. Friel’s AFTERPLAY, one year ago, yet there are times when the Arlington cast is so subdued that it unintentionally points out how one-noted the characters really are (a common trap when writing an ensemble-piece, beginning with Mr. Chekhov, himself). Only Jim Grana’s Jack, convincingly broken-down (though, oddly, without a trace of an accent), and Brigid Battell’s sly, primitive Rose punch things into the three-dimensional: Rose’s mental state is best revealed upon her return from an offstage seduction: Ms. Battell drifts into the yard while the others are inside, arranging a search party for her; she sits on the bench and eats a handful of berries from a pail with childlike, hungry glee, nowhere the worse for her actions --- the character clearly lives from moment to moment with no thought of future consequences. That way madness may not always lie but Ms. Battell’s quiet revelation is a signpost, nevertheless.

Charlie Carr has tucked a cottage interior and a yard into the Arlington’s wee proscenium (complete with moving clouds) without things becoming a battle of the elbows and all is gently lit by Douglas C. Desilets. I’m more than ready for Mr. Friel’s PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME!, an early masterpiece along similar lines --- aren’t you?

"Dancing at Lughnasa" (2 - 11 February)
22 Academy Street, ARLINGTON MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide