‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ Enchants at 2nd Story Theatre
by Veronica Bruscini, Broadway World
The waning summer of 1936 heralds a soon-coming time of transition for the close-knit Mundy family. When August arrives, the five sisters – Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, and Chris – welcome their ailing brother home from decades of missionary work in Africa, even as they struggle with the ever-more-challenging task of maintaining their household finances.
Playwright Brian Friel won Tony and Olivier Awards for his semi-autobiographical Dancing at Lughnasa. The story is told through the memories of Michael Evans, Chris’ illegitimate son, and for him, Father Jack’s return and his sisters’ acquisition of a Marconi wireless radio serve as the tipping points that forever changed the Mundy family’s fortunes.
Michael is only seven years old in 1936, and his softened childhood recollections well serve the meditative narrative tone of Lughnasa. Action is at a minimum in this memory play as exposition primarily develops through family dynamics and the sisters’ conversations on intimate village gossip and immediate, homey concerns.
The 2nd Story company very ably presents this character-driven, dialogue-heavy piece, and under the smart direction of Mark Peckham, the story unfolds plainly and naturally. Neither the play’s comedy nor its tragedy overwhelm the production, and this fine balance highlights the realistic, semi-historical aspect at work in Lughnasa.
Though all of the actors’ Irish accents fluctuate significantly throughout the production, their characterizations are consistent and thoughtfully portrayed. Rachel Morris plays family matriarch Kate as practical, responsible, and sometimes harsh, yet she allows for glimpses of Kate’s fears and uncertainties – as well as a lingering, girlish buoyancy she promptly subdues – to peek through at key moments.
Christina Wolfskehl charms in every scene as the lighthearted, fun-loving Maggie, always quick to boost the family’s spirits with a riddle or a song. Though Maggie laughs the loudest, like any great comedienne, she hides her own heartbreak under her laughter, and Wolfskehl credibly expresses this complexity in her character. Wolfskehl also plays well with David de Almo, who portrays Michael Evans not only as the adult narrator, but also as the seven-year-old youngster of his memories. De Almo stands slightly removed as the other actors mime interaction with a child-sized Michael, a theatrical nod that plays very believably across the footlights.
Even the more broadly-drawn characters – the sometimes sunny, sometimes stormy Chris (played by Betsy Rinaldi); her irresponsible, often absent yet charismatic lover, Gerry (James Lucey); and the addled, exuberant ex-priest, Jack F. William Oakes – are colorful, but care is taken in the direction and presentation so they never descend into caricature. Their eccentricities instead aid in the storytelling and emphasize the details that would shine brightest in a young child’s memory.
The two quietest Mundy sisters – peacemaking Agnes and sweet, simple Rose – play crucial roles in Lughnasa, and their actions throughout the second act have lasting repercussions for all of the characters as the autumn approaches. Tanya Anderson presents Agnes as an oasis of calm even when she is at her most emotionally-conflicted points, and the eroding of Rose’s cheerful naivety further underscores the internal and external transformations summer’s end will bring for the entire Mundy family and their very way of life.
As the unreliable Marconi’s fragmented music punctuates the narrative, Michael’s account centers not on encroaching sadness, but on the love his family shared: his aunts’ affectionate squabbling, his parents’ complicated romance, the adults’ doting on his childhood self. Presenting the characters “warts and all” in their daily routines and habitual arguments ensures that the family’s affection is not saccharine or idealized, and so their joys and sorrows resonate with authenticity.
Trevor Elliott again crafts a fantastic set for 2nd Story, creating the well-worn Mundy hearthside and the turf-covered green hills of their property in Ballybeg. Elliott makes excellent use of projection screens and, with Ron Allen’s lighting design, fashions beautiful shades of natural light and subtle effects of the open countryside.