‘Dancing’ poignant, life-affirming
"Dancing" is a poignant, bitter-sweet tale, one that's getting a first-rate run at 2nd Story.by Channing Gray, Providence Journal
Change is not always good in Brian Friel’s evocative memory play, “Dancing at Lughnasa,” which opened this week at 2nd Story Theatre. The changes that take place during the summer of 1936 in an impoverished corner of Ireland spell only looming sadness and economic privations for the five Mundy sisters.
This Tony Award-winner, which debuted in Dublin in 1990, is loosely based on Friel’s own life growing up on the west coast of Donegal. The unmarried Mundy sisters are a close-knit lot, surviving on menial jobs while trying to raise sister Christina’s illegitimate son, Michael.
It is Michael as a grown man who tells the story of that summer, when as a 7-year-old he was surrounded by love, even as that simple, bucolic life was about to fade. But despite impending hardships, “Dancing” has its life-affirming moments, when the sisters forget about their troubles and kick up their heels. At one point, they smear flour on their faces, shriek and break into an orgiastic step dance.
“Dancing is at the heart of life,” says one of the characters, “as if language no longer exists.”
The drama takes place in the sisters’ cottage, where we hear only reports about events taking place in the outside world. Jerry Evans, a traveling salesman who fathered Michael out of wedlock, drops by to say he’s off to Spain to fight in the civil war.
And news filters in that Kate’s job as a teacher in a Catholic school has been phased out because of low enrollments. But she can’t help but think the real reason for being let go is her brother Jack, a priest who is just back from a stint as a missionary in Uganda, where he “went native” and ended up embracing pagan rites.
If that weren’t hardship enough, a knitwear factory opens in the village, killing off the glove-making business that provided a meager income for Rose and Agnes.
“Dancing” is a poignant, bitter-sweet tale, one that’s getting a first-rate run at 2nd Story, where Mark Peckham is doing an able job in the director’s seat.
David De Almo, as Michael the narrator, plays a big role in stringing the story together. He is a presence, and perhaps works the hardest to maintain a brogue, something that comes and goes with other members of the cast.
Among the sisters, Rachael Morris’ Kate stood out for tendency to behave like an uptight fuddy-duddy, and still be in touch with her heart. Even Kate can let down her hair when the spirit moves her. And Erin Olson, as the slow sister Rose, brings home a powerful moment when after running off with a man for a few hours during an afternoon of berry picking, she returns shaken and unable to tell her sisters what happened.
F. William Oakes adds just the right dose of craziness to Jack, who tells of pagan celebrations in the wilds of Africa with a sort of wild-eyed mania. Oakes is also wonderfully befuddled, struggling to get his bearings as he reenters civilization after spending 25 years in a leper colony.
And James Lucey is a very human Gerry, who comes across as something of a cad for abandoning Christina, but is also the sort of affable guy you can’t help but like.
Rounding out the cast are Christina Wolfskehl as the fun-loving Maggie, and Tanya Anderson as Agnes, who has the hots for Gerry. Betsy Rinaldi does a nice job as the moody Chris, who flip-flops between elation and depression in her sometimes relationship with Gerry.
Besides a solid cast, the show just looks good, with an atmospheric set from house designer Trevor Elliott, who this time has dispensed with his usual exacting detail and gone more for the suggestion of simple country life, with a glowing sky and what looks to be real turf.
“Dancing” is one of the prolific Friel’s most admired plays, and it’s easy to see why. The characters are lovingly drawn, it’s well crafted, and of course, the changing economic landscape of 1930s Ireland is something most of us can relate to these days.