Dancing at Lughnasa moves heart and soul
Irish writer Brian Friel had such a gift for language. In the best of his plays, from “Philadelphia, Here I Come” to “Faith Healer,” he caught the poetic imagery, the romantic flights of imagination that the Irish cast against darker, more elusive moments of happiness wasted or forever postponed.
Never was that more sweetly felt than in “Dancing at Lughnasa,” a touching story of the Mundy sisters from mythical Ballybeg in Ireland’s Donegal.
The play is so captivating, so moving, so etched in the imagination it remains in your heart and mind long after you leave the theatre.
In a perfect production, which unfortunately this is not, it haunts the spirit in such a moving, illuminating way there’s no escaping the way tragedy sometimes gnaws at our quest for happiness.
The Shaw Festival has made some fundamental mistakes in director Krista Jackson’s staging of Friel’s beautiful play. For one thing, for all the play’s richness of language, this production hasn’t the poetry of the piece.
Played against a set that floats on waves of green tarpaulin draped artfully about, it ignores the need for the romantic. At the sides of the proscenium, peculiar grey-green columns block important action. And the kitchen, which is the play’s heartland, is cramped in a corner upstage. What was designer Sue LePage thinking?
Unfortunately, the Irish accents are imperfect, too, so the rhythm is wrong and, oh my goodness, the dancing, which ought to inform the play on two separate, but essential levels, is in one case tugging the play in the wrong direction.
Young Christina is the play’s wistful heart. So, when she dances with Gerry Evans, the man who has left her to raise their out-of-wedlock son Michael, without so much as an Irish farthing for support, we ought to know the magic of that dance. It’s not a Vaudeville routine.
It’s a dance of seduction sweetly intimate, but romantically sad. It’s a dance that says what ought to be, not what is.
Neither Sarena Parmar’s boisterous Christina, nor Kristopher Bowman’s unlikeable Gerry is in the right time and place. They’re too modern for the play’s 1930s time-frame. They don’t fit the landscape and they don’t hear the music the right way.
Similarly, Diana Donnelly holds back on playing Rose’s simple nature. Her longing isn’t felt enough. Her desperate desire for passion and love is buried in a performance that is muted.
Then there’s Fiona Byrne’s moving, but too staid Kate. There isn’t enough sadness in her vision. Because she understands more than any of the Mundy girls about the heartless way of the world, we need to know the fire she keeps at bay.
Better is Claire Jullien’s jealous Agnes. Her heart breaks every time she thinks of worthless Gerry, as she too longs to feel his manly arms hold her in the moonlight.
Best of all, though, is Tara Rosling’s earthy Maggie, a free spirit who loves a drag on her wonderful Woodbines, feeling the smoke curl from her mouth in pleasurable exhaust.
Rosling has the heart and soul of Friel’s play echoing in her voice and splayed out in her primitive Irish dance. That dance isn’t made up of steps that anybody knows, but in the release of buoyant passion.
Peter Millard misses the fey, lost side of Father Jack, the priest who shucks his strict Catholic background to bring home wild and miraculous tales of liberation in Africa’s Uganda; tales about fires of sunburned pagan ritual.
These stories, filtered through the feral flames of Ireland’s own Celtic festival, Lughnasa, and its release of passion become one.
Always, throughout the play, like some spectre presiding over tear-stained memories, Patrick Galligan, Christina’s grown-up son Michael, relives the heartbreak of Lughnasa’s now-lost world.
You won’t leave the theatre unmoved.
The cast of “Dancing at Lughnasa,” a sweetly felt, touching story, says reviewer Gary Smith.
Peter Millard as Father Jack, left, Fiona Byrne as Kate, Tara Rosling as Maggie, Claire Jullien as Agnes, Sarena Parmar as Christina, Diana Donnelly as Rose, and Kristopher Bowman as Gerry in “Dancing at Lughnasa.”