There is more to the exuberant spirit of Ireland than step dancing, blarney, and whisky. The Druid religion of nature worship was deeply rooted when Christianity ventured onto the Emerald Isle, and Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa gives credit where credit is due.
The current production at Providence College’s Blackfriars Theatre does a rousing job of conveying that spirit, with the help of guest director Bob Colonna.
A triple Tony winner in 1992, the play doesn’t stint on the step dancing, but it’s those pagan roots that fascinate us even more. The year is 1936 and we are in the countryside of Donegal, Friel’s Yoknapatawpha County, near the fictional town of Ballybeg, where the playwright has set such powerful dramas as Translations.
This is a memory play in the tradition of The Glass Menagerie, in which a prodigal son walks about the stage musing about the family of his youth. Michael (Jeffrey Dujardin) is now in his 30s, but his thoughts return to when he was 7, being raised by his mother and her four sisters. A missionary priest uncle has just returned from Uganda, brain-wracked by malaria and no longer of any use to Catholicism, what with his enthusiastic appreciation for African gods and ancestor spirits. Also visiting, after a 13-month absence, is Michael’s father Gerry (Erik Anderson), who has never married the boy’s lively and somewhat vain mother, Christina (Betsey Jensen).
Primitive urges don’t have a chance to stay stifled, it seems, as the harvest festival of Lughnasa — named for the pagan god Lugh — approaches. Christina’s dancing demonstration of the fun they could have if they go inspires all of the sisters to join in — even, eventually, the responsible but emotionally stifled Kate (Elizabeth Clark), who works as a schoolteacher to support the clan.
Repressed sexuality is the engine that drives this play just as, one might argue, the tension between human nature and religious dogma has always built up in Irish culture until it pops out in little explosions of musical and literary brilliance. The sisters are worried about the youngest and simplest of them, Rose (Katie Hughes). She is, they fear, being seduced by a smooth-talking married man among those goat-sacrificing, bonfire-jumping quasi-pagans celebrating Lughnasa in the hill country. Friel gives her a marvelous little speech when she returns from a tryst, and Hughes delivers it with such pleasure and dignity that you want to hop onto the stage and give Rose a congratulatory hug. Her sister Agnes (Jill Palmer) is closest to her, and the saddest part of the play involves that loyalty.
The most subdued but most colorful character here is Uncle Jack, whom Dave Quinn gives an amiable vacuity, as though the priest has been emptied of Catholicism and filled back up with a childish Where the Wild Things Are paganism. Friel has fun having the priest forget common words in his temporary disease-induced dementia; speaking mainly Swahili for decades, he also has been forgetting the primacy of Christianity. At first Jack speaks of his African companion Okawa as his servant, only later slipping in a reference to him as his mentor; this is typical of how the playwright builds up our understanding of these characters layer by layer. (Likewise, when you meet the boy’s father, don’t dismiss him because he doesn’t ask about his son on his first visit; he’ll prove himself later.)
The set design — by David Costa-Cabral, who also did the costumes — is simple but effective. A wood-slat construction suggests a peat-clod stove at stage left, near a big kitchen that would be the center of such a cottage. Most interestingly, the play is visually framed, when the action begins and ends, by household odds and ends scattered about as if in a derelict house, also signifying the scraps of memories that the narrating Michael is pulling together.
Director Colonna has gotten good work out of these student actors, not the least of which consists of maintaining their spectrum of Irish brogues (coached by Shiela Hogg). Dujardin’s Michael gains authority with his insights as his observations continue. His culminating monologue builds to a life-loving shout of affirmation, despite the hardships he has described that his aunts have gone through. All of the sisters are convincingly in character, but Katie Cheely stands out as Maggie, the cheerful one who likes to tell riddles. She makes her more than frivolous, so in a finger-snap we believe it when she takes charge over the bossy Kate during a sudden emergency.
Dancing at Lughnasa is a powerful and at the same time lighthearted drama. This PC troupe pulls out enough of both qualities to make for a satisfying evening.
Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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