Of Faith and Frenzy
by Bill Rodrigues, The Providence Phoenix
Ireland’s Brian Friel, celebrated celebrator of the Irish Everyman, gives more than equal time to the feisty spirit of Irish women in Dancing At Lughnasa, which 2nd Story Theatre is smartly presenting in its UpStage space through October 27, carefully directed by Mark Peckham.
As appreciated with the five women depicted, who are living in 1936 on the outskirts of fictional Ballybeg, County Donegal, is the pagan life force that predated Christianity. Much is made of the ancient harvest festival, known as Lughnasa, whose approach makes the women grow giddy, struggling against the staid lifelong training of the Catholic Church.
This is a memory play, bracketed fore and aft by that declaration as we sail into the recollection of Michael Evans (David De Almo). He was seven years old that impressionable summer, when two of his four loving aunts were to fatefully leave home and the illegitimate boy was to see his father for the first time as the stranger visited his mother.
As Michael says at the end, “atmosphere is more significant than incident,” so the mood of this story is even more important than particular occurrences. As the playwright indicates by his choice of title, there is a primal, instructive power in dancing with abandon, because it is “as if language no longer existed, because words were no longer necessary.”
At 26, Michael’s mother, Christina Mundy (Betsy Rinaldi), is the youngest of the Mundy sisters. The boy’s self-serving father, Gerry (James Lucey), comes by only upon whim or convenient opportunity — this time he hitched a ride when he heard Ballybeg mentioned in a bar. Christina laughs and is flirtatious with him, but she’s fully aware of his irresponsibility; she knows he’s not one to stick around, and tells him so when she turns down his offers to marry her.
Agnes (Tanya Anderson) obviously has a crush on Gerry, but his impression is mainly that she shows the least objection to him. She painstakingly knits gloves, which brings a little bit of money into the household, but that ends when a glove factory moves to town, drastically underpricing her wares.
Impending scandal could not be signaled more clearly with a train whistle, as Rose (Erin Olson) speaks with naïve delight about the never-see Danny Bradley calling her his rosebud. Rose is supposed to be developmentally disabled, and that’s conveyed delicately.
Maggie (Christina Wolfskehl) has taken on the responsibility for upkeep of the house, doing most of the cooking and cleaning. She kids around a lot, trying to keep the family atmosphere light when things get too serious, but she gets woefully serious herself when thinking out loud about never having made her way in the outside world.
Kate (Rachel Morris), the oldest sister, works as a parochial-school teacher, and is the only one bringing significant money into the household. She’s bossy but perfectly capable of loosening up, a devout Catholic who at first condemns the idea of dancing, at Lughnasa or anywhere, as impious, but eventually she can’t resist.
She is decidedly more Catholic than Father Jack (F. William Oakes), who has recently returned from decades of service as a missionary in a leper colony in Uganda. Weak from malaria and losing his memory, he reveals more than he intends about losing his faith — more accurately, having exchanged it for another. He speaks with great respect and affection about native spiritual traditions and ancestor worship, turning a simple exchange of hats with Gerry into a formal African ceremony he obviously is familiar with conducting.
Oakes turns the priest into a luminous presence, radiating the love and joy that we now and then glimpse but never see maintained for long in the family, in this fine-tuned production. At one point we do see joyful celebration: when the sisters are dancing in their kitchen, each demonstrating steps as they start out, the competition prompts even sober Kate into showing off. They get wilder and wilder, their enthusiasm uncontainable in the house, spilling outside.
Lughnasa indeed — it’s no coincidence that the word sounds like “lunacy.” We certainly could use more divine madness in the world, of pagan origins or otherwise.