Reviewed by James Karas
The Shaw Festival delivers a pitch-perfect production of Dancing at Lughnasa that captures the lyricism, poignancy, humour and beauty of Brian Friel’s memory play.
The play is about five sisters living on the outskirts of a village in County Donegal in Ireland in 1936. They are almost on the edge of civilization leading lives of poverty, hope, dreams and expectations all of it seen by us through the memory of Michael (Patrick Galligan), the son of one of the sisters. He looks back and narrates part of the story a couple of decades after the events. Like all memories, it is a mixture of nostalgia, ruefulness, sadness and lyrical cadences.
The cast of Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by David Cooper.
The five sisters, played like a finely tuned musical quintet, are the schoolteacher Kate (Fiona Byrne), the housekeeper Maggie (Tara Rosling), the knitters Agnes (Claire Jullien) and Rose (Diana Donnelly), and Michael’s mother Christina (Sarena Parmar). They are different persons but, if I may continue the musical ensemble simile, combine to express the all-important atmosphere of the play. The essentially closed society that they inhabit provides a chance, however evanescent, to have some fun, to dance, to release some energy, to participate in something almost orgiastic and perhaps even Dionysian in the Lughnasa harvest festival.
Their only contact with the outside world while at home is a very unreliable radio but the sisters manage to start dancing, first haltingly and slowly joyfully, and then almost frenetically as they release all their inhibitions even for a few minutes.
Reality intrudes. Their brother Father Jack (Peter Millard), a missionary priest has returned from Africa not quite in a cloud of glory but under very suspicious circumstances. Michael’s father Gerry (Kristopher Bowman) makes an appearance. He is ne’er-do-well dance teacher, gramophone salesman and dreamer who claims to have seen a unicorn and is off to Spain to fight with the International Brigade. He is able to charm Christina into dancing with him and gives her some moments of bliss.
(l to r): Sarena Parmar as Christina, Fiona Byrne as Kate, Diana Donnelly as Rose and
Tara Rosling as Maggie in Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by David Cooper.
Internal and external factors lead to the moving break-up of the world of the five sisters. The economy changes and Kate loses her teaching job, Rose and Agnes lose their home-knitting jobs because a factory has come in, Father Jack’s lunacy becomes more pronounced and in the end all that is left is Michael’s moving memory of events long past.
I write at length about the play because it captures the people and the atmosphere that I try to describe with such accuracy and emotional impact. The actors playing the five sisters, from the tough Kate to the simpleton Rose, to the drudging Maggie give expression to a vanishing world that the women try keep together but which unravels in front of their eyes.
Galligan as the adult Michael narrates the story wistfully and speaks his lines as a boy of seven.
Director Krista Jackson conducts the cast in a beautiful and sensitive rendition of Friel’s poetry.
Sue LePage’s set consists of a country village kitchen on the right, a prominently placed Marconi radio in the center with the rest of the stage being open space. With the lighting design of Louise Guinand, it is a perfect representation of what an adult may remember from his childhood and is thoroughly appropriate.
A night at the theatre not to be missed.
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel runs in repertory until October 15, 2017 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.