Review of Dancing at Lughnasa
By Brian Friel
Directed by Patricia Miller
For tickets / schedule :
NTC Playhouse, Novato, CA
Novato Theater Company
RUN: May 20-June 12, 2016
RATING: 4 of 5 stars
(May 20, 2016)
During hardship and loss, relishing wild, unfettered dancing creates a cleansing experience. In the Middle Ages, ferocious forms of dance were popular in times of suffering; the two have lived hand-in-hand for centuries. There is a poignant joy and disturbing agony in shrieking with delight and bounding about in the face of adversity. The Mundy home struggles for basic human needs, trying to spread a couple of eggs into a meal for the entire family, and losing the opportunity for what little income they have due to outside pressures. When the wireless set blares cheerful dance music, the women fling themselves into a flurry of action, forgetting for the moment their worries and burdens through Patricia Miller’s choreography. Dancing at Lughnasa is not an idealized Irish household; it demonstrates the reality of poverty and sisters slowly growing apart, written by Brian Patrick Friel, a true Irishman.
A subtly beautiful choice is using Michael Evans (John J. Hanlon) who was a child at the time the play is set, as the narrator. His presence and reaction to memories playing out before him is nostalgic and distressing when he relates the future. His soliloquies are quiet and emotionally charged, bringing a darker mood to superficially lively scenes. Bubbly and energetic, Maggie (Shannon Veon Kase) has a folk song on her lips and endless array of terrible riddles. Beneath the careful façade of gaiety, she is lonely and terrified, concealing it in a stream of merriment.
Kate (Kristine Ann Lowry) is the opposite of her sister; stern and uptight on the outside, she slips up and reveals an open heart with unerring love of family. She is dismissed as a teacher by the parish priest when it is revealed that her brother Father Jack (Jim McFadden) went native during his time in Africa. Judgmental attitudes of the community toward what is perceived as an unforgiveable sin have a direct impact on Kate, but she does not allow them to color her relationships. Despite initial shock at Father Jack’s behavior, his earnest, child-like appreciation for native rhythms and culture win her over. Oozing his way in and out of the Mundy sisters’ lives is Gerry Evans (Mark Ian Schwartz), a complete cad with unshakable charisma. His charm wins over Christine (Lily Jackson), who realizes they cannot be together, yet hopes for it despite herself.
It is the characters who form the central focus of this staging, supported by primitive, rustic set design by Mark Clark, realistic 1936 props from grocery packaging to the old-fashioned iron, and unassuming yet impeccable costumes by Misha Murphy. While director Patricia Miller also served as dialect coach, the cast slipped back and forth with their accents rather frequently, other than John J. Hanlon, who remained consistent throughout. Keeping up full brogue is a challenge, and the attitudes of the characters shone through, despite lapses in speech patterns.
Dancing at Lughnasa is a window into fleeting moments of optimism for the Mundy family; it is a plea to enjoy life as it happens, rather than brood on the future or lost opportunities. Enter a world where daily survival hangs in the balance, infused with the passion of five sisters who refuse to back down from their right to live.