A not-so-depressing Irish play
Dancing at Lughnasa
Sacramento, CA 95815
Sister Kate will tell you sternly: Nothing good can come of pagan rites. In Big Idea Theatre’s production of Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel’s play about the clash between Ireland’s ancient pagan rites and stark Catholic rules, marks one of the tussles in the Mundy sisters’ Donegal home.
It’s 1936, and the five Mundy sisters have gotten a new radio and welcomed home their brother, the priest. Father Jack (Patrick Murphy) has spent decades serving in a Ugandan leper colony. As the summer season—the time of celebrating the festival of the pagan harvest god, Lugh, with bonfires and dancing—winds out, we also see the rising hopes of some of the sisters that they might find love. Most poignantly, Christina (Jessica Berkey) delights in the return of her former suitor, Gerry (Justin Muñoz), the father of her illegitimate 7-year-old son, Michael.
What unfolds, narrated by the adult Michael (Kirk Blackinton), is a drama about missed chances and lost hopes, framed in the day-to-day life of the Mundy’s kitchen and dooryard. While there’s a great deal of humor, like all nostalgia, the general fact is one of loss as each of the sisters sees her chance at a happy ending slipping away.
Dancing at Lughnasa reflects honestly one of the great tragedies of Ireland: the loss of its men to immigration, revolution or the priesthood. As the world falls apart around them—Kate (Ruby Sketchley) loses her teaching job, Agnes (Beth Edwards) and Rose (Jessica Chisum) lose their work knitting gloves, and Father Jack has lost his grip on reality—the sisters struggle to find some joy in life, dancing to the “Marconi” in their kitchen.
And that’s what keeps it from being a completely depressing Irish play, something like Riders to the Sea. It’s shot through with good humor, particularly in the delivery of Liz Tachella Bowman as no-nonsense, riddle-loving Maggie. Muñoz tosses off a few good laughs as well, playing Gerry as a loveable (if thoroughly incorrigible) rogue. Even Father Jack’s memories of his participation in pagan Ugandan rites, while thoroughly scandalizing Kate, are told with a relish and joie de vivre that brings the moment to life.
A lovely, detailed set, designed by company member Brian Harrower, includes a mechanized portion that allows the kitchen to shrink or expand depending on whether the action has moved to the dooryard, an extremely inventive way of making the space do double duty. The set itself is detailed without being overdone and provides an overall sense of place and time without intruding into the action. Harrower was also the dialect coach and has worked with the actors to produce some pretty good Irish brogues.
Under the direction of Shannon Mahoney, the play keeps up a good pace, running a little more than two hours with a single intermission. In addition, she keeps the actors fully engaged in every scene. No one appears to be simply waiting for their lines; instead, they are actively doing the business of everyday life in a crowded Irish home at the middle of the last century.
Dancing at Lughnasa is also a nice break from Big Idea’s recent run of “men behaving badly” plays. It offers strong, stubborn, compassionate and funny women of the sort we all wish we’d been raised by. Michael was a lucky, lucky boy.