How It’s New York:  Irish Repertory Theatre is one of New York’s finest companies, and has become a fixture not only in the Irish but in the New York theatre world.  And this production of Brian Friel’s  Dancing at Lughnasa: A Playwas a huge hit on Broadway Plymouth Theatre 20 years ago.  It won the Best Play Tony that year, as

Orlagh Cassidy, Rachel Pickup, Aedín Moloney, Annabell Hagg.  (Carol Rosegg)

well as Best Featured Actress (Brid Brennan as Agnes) and Best Direction (Patrick Mason)
 How It’s Irish:  The play is a memory play about an Irish family in the country, based on Friel’s own mother and sisters.  Its impoverished sisters, longing to find  joy but not knowing how, and its tale of a missionary to Africa gone native before he comes home, are all particular to Friel’s imaginary town of Ballybeg.  Though it takes place in the 30s, it’s  mostly pre-Industrial, which is not untypical for the Irish countryside at the time (Iarla Ó Lionáird told audiences at Irish Arts Center when he played with Ivan Goff that he grew up in a pre-Industrial society, more or less, in the 60s).  The title refers to a pagan Irish holiday, at the beginning of August, that honors the old god Lugh.  It’s very Irish, that conflict between the wilder nature spirit and the restrictions of propriety.

Brian Friel is a Master of Memory.  

In his plays, narrators often warn us what’s coming next, and events circle around in time, as they do when we actually reflect on our lives.  It’s a fascinating way to tell a story, particularly a drama, where the audience gathers together in a room to experience somthing happening right in front of them.

At a Brian Friel play, what happens is the telling of a story.  Dancing at Lughnasa is one of his most poignant, powerful stories, and it’s given a beautiful production at Irish Repertory Theatre.  It’s a much more intimate space than the Plymouth, where it played 20 years ago, and that closeness of vision only makes the emotion more palpable.  It’s like looking closely at a faded photograph, and seeing the details you hadn’t especially planned to capture–  the old wallpaper, but there it is.  And the old stove.  Oh, and that knitting basket.  I remember that apron.

Memory, of course, can be deceptive.  Case in point:  My companion and I, and the critic who sat behind us, were all sure!  sure!  that the big wild dance of the sisters came later in the play, in Act Two.  Later I saw director Charlotte Moore who confirmed that nothing had been changed, and then, she said, now that you mention it I remember having that same thought when I was reading it.

I don’t know what this really means or implies for the show except that we all imposed a more traditional narrative structure on it, in which the climactic moment comes at the climax, not early-ish in Act One.  What marks Friel’s dramas (and feels so very, very  much like having a story told to you, particularly by an Irish person), is that the narrator weaves in and out of his own stories, and  even tells us what’s coming.  So it makes sense in a way that when you remember them, you misremember their order. 

  The play, narrated by an adult Michael Evans (Ciarán O’Reilly), who also steps into the role of his 7-year old self, describes a golden summer of 1936 when he lived with his mother and four aunts in Ballybeg.  Right at the outset he tells us:  “When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936 different kinds of memories offer themselves to me.”  The family had their first wireless set.  And Uncle Jack (Michael Countryman) had come home from 25 years as a priest in a leper colony in Africa.  And he tells us, right in the opening monologue, about how his sisters heard Irish music and suddenly went into a wild Irish dance.

Yet it’s still a thrill when it happens.

This impoverished household of sisters is run primarily by the eldest, Kate (Orlagh Cassidy), a schoolteacher.  Maggie (Jo Kinsella), the merriest of the five, keeps house.  Sisters Agnes (Rachel Pickup) and Rose (Aedín Moloney) both do some hand-knitting to earn money.  Rose is not slow, exactly, but simple and childlike, though she’s in her thirties.  Then there’s the youngest, Chris (Annabel Hagg) who, at 26, has a seven-year old son out of wedlock.  Gerry (Kevin Collins) is the father, a hapless Welshman who can’t seem to find a path to success, and whose main talent is dancing.  He comes by once or twice a year.  And Jack  has just come home from Africa.  He struggles to find the right English words for what he wants to say, and is prone to outbursts about killing sacrificial animals and praying to the spirits of the town, when what Kate and the town would like is to see him say Mass again.

Ciarán O’Reilly (Carol Rosegg)

We know from the get-go that things are really not leading towards happy endings.  At the end of Act One Michael tells us that the home will break up that summer, that Agnes and Rose will go away forever.But as in any good story we’ve maybe heard before, the pleasure is in how it’s told, in watching it unfold, in the mystery of character and action.  And here it unfolds with grace and precision, as wild and as contained as any rhythmic jig.

While Michael tells us that the summer is uneventful, in fact it’s full of incident. It’s got that “nothing happens, everything happens” quality of a play by Chekhov (to whom Friel is often compared).   The big things that happen ar that people’s fragile hopes for love will be explored (and largely dashed).  The future stems from this summer, though life goes on.

In addition to the appearance of the radio and the arrival of addled Uncle Jack (both before the action begins), Gerry’s visits that summer have much more meaning than previous ones; when young Michael sees them dancing silently he realizes that they have performed a kind of marriage.  This time, when Gerry leaves (to fight in Spain), Chris does not become depressed, just grieves like any bride would.  Kate is told she won’t be returning to the school, which will deprive the household of their teeny income (we gather it’s because of Jack).  And a factory opens which will deprive the handknitters of work, prompting Aggie and Rose to run off to a life of destitution.

It all sounds terribly grim, but it isn’t.

As Maggie, Jo Kinsella is full of fun.  She enjoys teasing 7-year old Michael (Ciaran stands behind her and does the voices, so that we are left to imagine the child there) as if she were a child herself, and she’s so peppy when she dances that it is a mystery how she hasn’t married yet.  She’s just a delight to watch.  Aedín Moloney makes Rose wise as well as simple, and cheeky, which only makes her more lovable.   She knows more than they give her credit for (and we’re left wondering even at play’s end whether she had the affair she ran off to have on a sunny day when she should have been picking berries). And Rachel Pickup’s Agnes has grace and love within her.  She’s the best dancer of the sisters, which in this play means more than just a talent.  Dancing in this world has a connotation of spirituality and blessing.  There’s a hint that she too may have fallen for Gerry– she can’t watch Gerry and Chris dance together, and when she yells at Kate, she is also yelling in defense of Gerry.  Oh, that Irish thing of yearning in love, never speaking it.  Usually it’s told of a man, but if you watch the play closely, it’s here in a woman. 

Kevin Collins, Annabel Hagg (Carol Rosegg)

Gerry is not merely a cad, either.  Kevin Collins gives him a real vulnerability and sweetness to him.  You can see why Chris loves him (though not quite why she admires him), and it’s true what Kate observes, watching her and Gerry together, that Chris’ “whole face alters when she’s happy.”   Annabel Hagg transforms from a serious, somewhat sad girl to a high-spirited beauty before our eyes.  It’s remarkable.  Director Charlotte Moore excels here.  Choregorapher Barry McNabb shows glimpses of the romantic in ballroom, and his wild kitchen dance is both funny and fierce.

Ciarán O’Reilly is almost frighteningly convincing as a 7-year old, and funny too, the way he overlaps his Aunt Maggie’s upbeat riddles with “give up.”  Michael Countryman’s addled Jack feels more comic and less tragic than he did on Broadway, where it was too painfully obvious he would die soon.  When he tells Chris how fortunate he is to have a love child, he’s actually almost persuasive, which prompts Kate’s hilarious, polite response:

“No harm to Ryanga but you’re home in Donegal now and much as we cherish love-children here they are not exactly the norm.”

Orlagh Cassidy, Jo Kinsella (Carol Rosegg)

Kate, played by Orlagh Cassidy, is more than just ‘s a “righteous bitch.” as Agnes calls her, trying to keep order.    She too succumbs to the Irish music on the radio and dances like a demon (albeit with more correct steps); we can see that she’s capable of great depth of feeling. Of all the sisters, she’s the one who takes Jack seriously enough to disapprove, and then to find a way to come to terms with his new beliefs, calling them:  “his own distinctive spiritual search.”

Antje Ellerman’s set design shows fields ready to be harvested visible at all times– not only setting the place but showing us the beauty and isolation of this home.  Music scoring underneath (sound by M. Florian Staab; music by Ruan Rumery and Christian Frederickson) also added to the atmosphere of memory, as did scratchy radio sounds.

It’s a beautiful play, given a beautiful production.  And it will linger in your mind and create a memory of its own.
Dancing at Lughnasa  plays at Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC, through JAN. 15.  Wed- Sat. 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. and Sun. 3 p.m.  Tickets at 212-727-2737 or at Irish Rep

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.