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By Bill Hirschman
Amid blockbuster musicals and dysfunctional family dramas, one of the disappearing genres of theater and much of art is the slow, sweet sad song.
And as Palm Beach Dramaworks’ slow, sweet sad production of Dancing at Lughnasa shows, nobody sings them like the Irish.
Like many Dramaworks’ shows, it requires a 21st Century audience to downshift the metabolism a bit, but the reward is a melancholy but oddly affirming elegy that acknowledges the universal pain of life with a rueful and compassionate smile, echoing that other great memory play, The Glass Menagerie.
Brian Friel’s Tony and Olivier-winning drama is not set in the jaunty Ireland of Riverdance, the fabled Glocca Morra or even Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic Inishmore. This is the mournful land of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. It’s a portrait of people seemingly cursed by fate, in this case, the five mostly middle-aged Mundy sisters eking out a hardscabble life in a rural village in County Donegal in 1936.
The tale is told in flashback by the grown narrator Michael Mundy, who then was a seven-year-old child born out of wedlock to one sister and is being raised by the five women as one. The play focuses on crucial days in late summer when events will unravel their lives.
There are no spoilers for Friel; it’s thematically essential that Michael reveal to us bit by bit what the characters cannot see coming: disillusionment, shattered dreams, poverty, illness and death. Friel wants us to cherish what few joys we have while we have them, above all the blessings of family. Michael seems to yearn to hug his long-dead loved ones because their loss reminds him how we don’t appreciate life as we are living it, as Wilder warned us in Our Town.
Under J. Barry Lewis’ brilliant direction of an inspired pitch-perfect cast, establishing the tone, mood, characters and relationships is more important than creating a driving narrative. As Michael tells the audience, “In that memory, atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.” As a result, this may not be every audience member’s cup of tea. Their loss.
We meet the five sisters who have created a close affectionate unit, but each quietly mourns lost chances at love or at least a life of their own. They are imprisoned together by cruel vagaries of fate that have cauterized the part of their soul where hope resides.
The oldest, Kate (Julie Rowe), has become the matriarch since the death of their parents. As the family’s primary breadwinner as an educator, Kate shoulders the heavy burden of leadership and camouflages her own pain with a schoolteacher’s sternness reinforced with a devout Catholicism.
Only slightly younger, Maggie (Meghan Maroney) is the family jokester and cook with a love for raising her lovely voice to croon a popular tune. But in one stunning reverie, Maroney reveals that the past-her-prime Maggie mourns a glimpse of true love.
Chris (Gretchen Porro) is the mother of Michael, having been seduced by the considerable charms of the ne’er-do-well Gerry (Cliff Burgess) who makes blithely intermittent appearances filled with empty promises and doomed pipe dreams. Her “shame” is one of several factors distancing the family from the community. She is alternately morose at her imprisonment and overjoyed when Gerry makes a visit.
Deeply in unrequited love with Gerry is the plain, ineffably sad Agnes (Margery Lowe in her finest performance we can remember) who is in visible but restrained agony whenever Gerry appears.
Rose (the always wonderfully quirky Erin Joy Schmidt) is developmentally disabled, although that is not made clear until someone references it. She just seems to be a lovely, over-enthusiastic young woman who imagines a local boy is sweet on her. Protecting her is yet another reason the family is disconnected from the village. When Agnes proposes the sisters go into town to a harvest dance, Kate stomps on their ecstatic reaction, saying that the village would laugh at a family of older women cavorting. She actually means they would laugh at Rose’s odd antics.
Complicating matters is the return of Uncle Jack (the affecting John Leonard Thompson), a missionary priest who has been called home after three decades of ministering to tribes in Uganda, ostensibly because his mind is deteriorating after a losing bout of malaria – but, in fact, for another reason.
The entire evening is presided over by Michael (Declan Mooney) who speaks to us and, from the sidelines, speaks for his invisible 7-year-old self when the boy speaks with his aunts in 1936.
If you are familiar with the play, you know there is a celebrated scene in which the sisters join in an impromptu dance to a tune on the radio. In the hands of Lewis, this cast and choreographer Lynnette Barkley, it is an undiluted triumph. Having spent a half-hour of stage time depicting their repressed gloom, each sister, one by one, issues a feral scream from their guts and erupts into an individual idiosyncratic dance. But it’s not their abandoned movement that rips the play open because other than the surprisingly graceful Agnes, they’re not agility personified. What overwhelms is the expressions on their faces that depict an explosion of long-suppressed passion. While that passion is mostly frustration and even sorrow, there is such joy in its finally being unleashed to exorcise the pain. It’s thrilling.
Once again, a cast under Lewis’ direction gives lessons in acting. In this case, class, notice how they listen intently to what is happening elsewhere in the scene even when they have no dialogue. See how they silently react, without calling attention to themselves, to what is being said by other characters. Watch how doggedly they focus on knitting, ironing, slicing bread while soaking in what is occurring around them, even when – especially when – they are in shadow and featured characters are interacting in the lights on the other side of the stage. While they all excel in this, Lowe’s face perpetually communicates the range of pain and pleasure simmering under the surface.
Thompson, who has played everything from the venal Teach in American Buffalo to the preacher in Candida, deserves a special nod for his heart-breaking scenes of a once-fine now-addled mind trying to find words. Even better is his work in Friel’s brilliant monologue describing an Ugandan ceremony. Thompson makes it clear that Jack has surrendered his repressive Christian faith to the more joyous native religion – the real reason for his recall.
If there is a secondary theme lurking, it may lie there. The repression and prejudices of a strictured society lie at the heart of many of the Mundy family’s woes. Kate may condemn Maggie’s singing of “pagan songs,” disapprove of Chris’ continuing to see Gerry and horrified by Jack’s praise of African rites, but they are clearly the happiest members of this troubled family.
As always, Dramaworks technical crew is among the finest in the region including Brian O’Keefe’s costumes, Ron Burns’ lighting, Steve Shapiro’s sound design and choice of music and James Danford’s stage management. A special shout out is due to Dramaworks newcomer Jeff Modereger for his evocative design of the Mundy’s modest time-worn brick-and-plaster cottage, side yard and garden with its prematurely autumnal trees.
Friel is rarely performed these days; his early Philadelphia, Here I Come! used to be a regional theater staple and his later Faith Healer received a transcendent production at Inside Out Theatre in Fort Lauderdale. He embraces the everyday speech of everyday people with a flair for lyrical metaphors that portend an ominous future.
Thanks to Dramaworks for reviving this quiet portrait of wounded souls.
Dancing at Lughnasa runs through June 16 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, the Don & Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Performances 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday; 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time 2 hours 20 minutes including one intermission. Tickets are $10 (students) to $55. Call (561) 514-4042, ext. 2, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.