Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2009
Oh dear sisters, our life is not yet at an end. Let us live. The music is so gay, so joyful, and, it seems that in a little while we shall know why we are living, why we are suffering...
– Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters
Brian Friel should have titled his Dancing at Lughnasa Five Sisters, for it is essentially Irish Chekhov. There are strong parallels between the three Pròzorov sisters and the five Mundy “girls – unrequited love, unemployment, dealing with a foolhardy brother, and dreaming of adventure while coping with the endless everyday tasks of living. Friel has a long association and fascination with Chekhov, and translated Three Sisters in 1981. Dancing at Lughnasa premiered in 1990 and it is easy to see how Chekhov’s words, mingled with Friel’s own memories of his mother and aunts who lived on the west coast of Donegal, gave birth to this delicate and loving portrait of Irish family life.
Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play, narrated my the now grown Michael Evans (Kevin Wixsom), the illegitimate son of Christina (Dana Harrison), the youngest of the Mundy sisters. In it he recalls two days in the late summer of 1936, when he was seven, at the family home two miles outside of the town of Ballybag in County Donegal, Ireland. Young Michael lived then with his mother, her four sisters – Kate (Kathleen Carey), Maggie (Cathy Lee Visscher), Agnes (Alexandra Lincoln), and Rose (Jennifer Young) – and their brother Jack (Tracy Trimm), a Roman Catholic priest, who has recently returned from a lifetime of ministry to lepers in Uganda.
These two days, the first in early August and the second in early September during the ancient Celtic season called Lughnasa, the Harvest Festival, stand out in Michael’s mind because on those days his erstwhile father, a Welshman named Gerry Evans (Ryan Winkle), came to visit. And because of the sporadic bursts of music generated by the family’s temperamental radio set, Marconi.
None of the Mundy “girls,” now in their 20’s and 30’s, is or has been married, nor will they ever be. At the start of the play only Kate is employed outside the home. Agnes and Rose knit gloves, for which they are paid a pittance. Jack has returned home weak with Malaria after having been removed from his post for pagan practices, a fact that torments the devoutly Catholic Kate.
By the end of the play things are even worse in the Mundy household. And the adult Michael tells us how much worse they become in later years.
Sounds like a real downer, doesn’t it? And yet, like much of Chekhov, Dancing at Lughnasa is mostly quite a cheerful play. Michael is blessed with five “mothers,” and his father, as played by Winkle, is a droll and charming man who brings a little fun into the household. The sisters dance wildly to the sporadic blasts of music from the radio to relieve the cares of the world and celebrate life.
At the Ghent Playhouse director John Trainor has assembled an able but oddly mixed cast to bring this award-winning play to life. Wixsom, Vissher, and Trimm are Ghent stalwarts. Harrison, Lincoln, Young, and Winkle are all current employees of Shakespeare & Company. And Carey is a talented regular on the local theatre scene who just happens to be new to the Ghent stage.
Shakespeare & Company has a very specific and proprietary method of training actors and interpreting material. The Ghent Playhouse is a community theatre, and while Trainor is an accomplished director and actor with decades of productions to his credit, he has never trained with or performed at Shakespeare & Company. There is a dichotomy of style and purpose at work here. These two theatres stage very different types of shows for very different audiences with very different tastes and expectations. Both have long histories of producing fine work, but people come to a community theatre to see their friends and relations as well as to be entertained. The Shakespeare & Company actors do not draw the hometown crowd that Ghent banks on.
And while the Shakespeare & Company actors are talented, I am not sure they are particularly well cast. I felt that Carey and Visscher gave me much clearer portraits of Kate and Maggie than Lincoln and Young did of Agnes and Rose. In fact it took me ‘til well into the second act to realize that Rose was supposed to be “simple.” Young never convey to me any sense of mental impairment, even after I caught on.
Harrison gave a warm and enjoyable performance as Chris, sharing good chemistry with Winkle, but was there supposed to be something – real or imagined – between Gerry and Agnes? Lincoln convinced me that feelings existed, but I never could decide whether it was just Agnes’ unrequited longing or whether Gerry had given her some encouragement or they had had a brief fling in the past.
Visscher was fine and entertaining as the family clown, but I lost any sense of what lay behind her mask. Carey excels at playing tightly controlled, angst-filled women, so Kate is a role tailor-made for her. She clearly shows us Kate’s longings and proclivities – and the fears Jack’s exploration of African faith traditions and her sisters’ longing to dance at Lughnasa bring to her rigidly Catholic world.
Trimm is too old and certainly too robust to be believable as a malaria victim. I was confused, because Trimm looks old enough to be playing their father, and because the sisters refer to him as “Father Jack,” as to exactly which generation Jack belonged.
The young Michael is never seen on stage – Wixsom delivers all of his lines as Michael’s adult self, while the rest of the cast mime their interactions with the unseen child. Trainor even has Wixsom facing away from the action during those scenes, delivering his lines directly to the audience, never showing any hint of remembered emotion. Surely Michael loved these people and recognized the love they showered on him.
Ben Heyman has designed an outstanding set representing both the interior and the exterior of the Mundy cottage. You can almost smell the peat moss burning. Antiques at Bailey’s in Nassau, NY, has provided many appropriately aged pieces of wooden furniture, and, I assume, Marconi too.
Joanne Maurer has missed the boat with the women’s costumes, many of which are obviously modern. Never use rayon in an Irish period piece – cotton and wool ONLY!
Foreign accents. They are hard to do and nearly impossible to do well. None of this cast is able to sustain their Irish accents. Nor is there any difference between the Irish accents and Winkle’s Welshman. Trimm sounds thoroughly American, when he should sound Irish/Ugandan (go find a dialect coach for THAT accent). I still wonder whether it wouldn’t be better for amateur American casts to just dispense with any attempt at accents and focus on the acting.
Today the neo-pagans, wiccans, etc. have co-opted and reimagined many of the Celtic rituals. Lughnasa traditions, which were frowned on by the government and the church in 1936, are now openly celebrated once again – with plenty of modern misinterpretations and fanciful additions I am sure. Friel cleverly juxtaposes the Catholic with the “pagan” traditions of the Ugandans and the Celts to comment on the close link between world religions and the link, long denied by the Christian churches, between humankind and the natural world, as symbolized by music and dance.
Lughnasa is a Harvest Festival, a time to celebrate the fecundity and the bounty of the earth as it brings forth sufficient food to see us through the winter. It was therefore also a time for engagements or hand-fastings, an assurance that there would be as healthy a crop of babies the coming year as there were of fruits and grains. Michael’s father picks this time to reappear, to propose to Chris and flirt with Agnes and bring a brief sexual awakening to the Mundy household. It is a lovely metaphor, brilliantly realized in Friel’s script. It is a pity that this cast and this production are not quite capable of fully illuminating the playwright’s world.
The Ghent Playhouse production of Dancing at Lughnasa opens on Friday, March 20 and runs through Sunday, April 5. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. the show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and will be best enjoyed by ages 13 and up, although there is nothing untoward for younger children to see or hear. All seats are reserved, and prices are $12.00 for members and $15.00 for non-members. For more information and/or reservations call the box office at (518) 392-6264. The Ghent Playhouse is located just off Route 66 in Ghent, across from the Fire Station.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009