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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
DANCING AT LUGHNASA
at the Irish Repertory Theatre

A CHANGING IRELAND
By BERNARD CARRAGHER

  (L to R) Orlagh Cassidy, Rachel Pickup, Aedin Moloney and Annabel Hagg/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

The Irish playwright Brian Friel turns 83 in a few weeks, and Charlotte Moore, the artistic director of the Irish Repertory Company, is giving him an early birthday present with an exhilarating revival of one of his masterworks, Dancing at Lughnasa, which won a Tony for best play in 1991.
 
Ever since 1966, when Friel made his auspicious New York theater debut with Philadelphia, Here I Come! – still his most popular play, about a young Irishman leaving family and hearth to emigrate to the United States – he has been the most frequently produced modern Irish playwright to grace our stages. Over the past 45 years he has displayed an artistry of rueful beauty, quiet humor, and wisdom and wonder in an amazing series of fine plays.
 
When Friel first arrived on the scene, he was the voice of a new generation of Irish writers, a different voice from the old guard, which spawned such remarkable playwrights as John Millington Synge, who, in The Playboy of the Western World, wrote one of the great comedies of the English language, and with his Riders to the Sea, wrote one of the few plays of the 20th century that suggest the grandeur of Greek tragedy. Another, Sean O’Casey, the Dublin bricklayer, wrote two towering classics of Irish drama, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. There have been other lesser writers with a flair for the stage – some hotly contentious, scornful of one another – men and a smattering of women playwrights like Lady Gregory, a co-founder of the Abbey Theater with W. B. Yeats, and our own Mint Theatre’s recently rediscovered Teresa Deevy. They were all writers of many views, all fiercely held and vehemently argued, wonderfully witty with a deep fondness for language.
 
Like O’Casey, most of them wrote only one or two major plays. Paul Vincent Carroll tried but could never match his best work Shadow and Substance. The late Brendan Behan might have created a substantial body of work and been a contender along with Friel, but his rapacious lifestyle did him in at age 41, with only one notable play to his name, The Hostage.
 
Friel, whose tally to date hovers around 30 plays, is not a boisterous writer like Behan or angry one like O’Casey, but he does share their easy rolling fluency of language and the obvious joy of words, which all the best of his countrymen have and a good deal of their humor as well.
 
His works are written to be heard as well as seen, and Dancing at Lughnasa is no exception. It has been compared to the memory plays of Tennessee Williams, such as The Glass Menagerie, and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, yet like most of Friel’s best work it echoes of the serious comic genius of Anton Chekhov, filtered through Friel’s thoroughly original Irish sensibility. In fact he is frequently referred to as the “Irish Chekhov.”
 
The time of Dancing at Lughnasa is the summer of 1936; the place is Ballybeg, a fictional town invented by Friel, in county Donegal, Ireland. Michael (Ciaran O’Reilly), the grown-up son of Chris (Annabel Hagg), one of the five unmarried Mundy sisters, supposedly based on Friel’s mother and her four siblings, serves as the playwright’s relater of his childhood recollections of those late summer days when the family got its first battery operated radio, a Marconi, and his uncle, Father Jack (Michael Countryman) returned home after spending 25 years as a missionary in an African leper colony. It was a significant summer for Michael because of the two visits from his restless father Gerry Evans (Kevin Collins).
 
It was also the beginning of a time of great change for Ireland, when the country was shifting from an agrarian society to one that welcomed industry. For rural people like the Mundy sisters, this reordering would be devastating, altering their lives forever. Though Dancing at Lughnasa is good humored much of the time and oddly comical from moment to moment, in scene after scene Friel’s struggling family seems to serve as microcosm of a country trying to come to terms with a new world. The only time the sisters let pent-up emotion fly is when Celtic music comes on the radio. Led by the eldest sister Kate (Orlagh Cassidy), they all participate in a frantic, stomping Irish jig, deftly choreographed by Barry Mcnabb. The play’s title refers to the ancient pagan god of harvest Lugh and a time when backwoods Irish folk would celebrate the end of summer with bonfires and dancing.
 
Moore has assembled a first-rate cast. Besides the aforementioned members of the Mundy clan there are three other sisters that give fine performances: the romantic though slightly daft Rose (Aedin Moloney), the family’s prankster Maggie (Jo Kinsella), and the plaintive Agnes (Rachel Pickup). Moore has gathered together an ensemble that seems more like a real family rather than one created for the stage. She has also woven the tapestry of Friel’s lyrical drama into a production of singular beauty. 
 


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