Dallas — Irish ballads fill the air as people take their seats, and the audience claps and sings along with the musicians gathered on the stage at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas. The 45-minute pre-show music, performed by cast members of Dancing at Lughnasa, draws everyone into the spirit of Brian Friel’s richly evocative memory play, co-directed with warmth and exuberance by Miki Bone and Frank Latson. (See our interview on how co-directing works.)
The musicians sing and do a jig or two under a huge sycamore tree dominating the dooryard of the farmhouse kitchen, complete with big wooden table and lacy tablecloth in Rodney Dobbs’ handsome, detailed set. All the musicians exit except Mitchell Ferguson, stepping forward in the role of the narrator Michael Mundy. Sometimes restrained, sometimes laughing at the memories he’s called up, Mitchell’s Michael is an excellent narrator, his singer’s voice wrapping naturally around Friel‘s rhythmic and resonant language. “When I cast my mind back to the summer of 1936,” he begins, speaking in a pensive tone, and carrying us along as he recalls as the most vivid scenes of his seventh summer.
Friel’s semi-autobiographical story about the five unmarried Mundy sisters living in rural northern Ireland won a Tony Award in 1991, and remains a masterful blend of high humor and melancholy disillusionment, qualities that inform a body of work that brought the writer many awards and international acclaim.
Friel’s death last year at 86 has generated a fresh look at the playwright’s enormous body of work, including two dozen plays, a half-dozen translations of plays by Chekhov and Turgenev, plus numerous radio plays and short stories. Dancing with Lughnasa, like many of Friel’s most familiar plays, including Faith Healer (1979), Translations (1979 and Aristocrats (1980), is set in the fictional town of Ballybeg, a village much like the one where he grew up in the county of Donegal.
As Michael speaks, the kitchen fills with the extraordinary Mundy sisters, inspired by Friel’s mother and aunts. The narrator speaks of the “widening bridge” between what memory recalls in a burnished light, and the harsh reality of what happens to single women in a small village where war is abroad on the continent and new factories are destroying the market for their handiwork. Michael’s monologues are accompanied by violinist Beth Lipton, faintly seen in a blue light on the second floor balcony of the intimate theater, and playing a beautifully subtle score she wrote for the play.
The magic of Friel’s play is in the intertwining of past and present, the repression of Catholicism and the joyous release of dancing, as the sisters, no longer young women, gear up to attend the pagan festival of Lughnasa held in honor of the Celtic god of the Harvest.
The prisms through which we see the people in Ballybeg are the images rising in the heart and head of Michael himself. Like Tom in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Michael is both the narrator and a character telling his life story, including voicing his unseen seven-year-old self in scenes with his aunts and mother.
Marcia Carroll is the priggish schoolteacher Kate, the role played by Meryl Streep in the over-edited 1990 movie version of the play. Carroll’s Kate is a petite and tightly wound top of energy and determination, the oldest sister and the only wage earner in this household of not-so-gentle genteel poverty. She’s a schoolmarm with Catholic repression to spare, and has abandoned much of the Irish brogue throbbing convincingly in the voices of her siblings.
Marisa Diotalevi (a rousing Janis Joplin in Theatre Two’s The Empress and the Pearl last season) is Maggie, the earthy and high humored master of the hearth, who manages to get everybody fed and laughing, even when there’s nothing in the larder but a few eggs and a stale loaf of bread. Diotalevi’s light-footed and lusty Maggie can’t wait for the festival. Jumping on the table in her worn overalls, she throws her arms in the air and shouts, “I don’t care how young or drunk or dirty they are,” she says, “I want to dance!”
Maggie even draws the disapproving Kate into her loose-limbed and ecstatic dance to music coming over the family’s fabulous new “wireless” gramophone. Whirling and stamping their feet together in a jig, or twirling in the arms of a visiting salesman, all the sisters express with their vibrant movements things they would never dare to admit in words. Such moments lift the show to a communal level; we feel the sisters’ brief, happy abandon.
Quietly caring Agnes, played by a gently forceful Lorna Woodford, looks after lovely, simple-minded Rose, a wide-eyed Olivia Murphy oozing innocence and the wish to lose it.
Winsome Jacie Hood Wenzel, her red hair swirling below her waist, is Michael’s mother Christine, a vulnerable beauty who lives for the brief visits of Michael’s father Gerry, an attractive, irresponsible Welch salesman, played with virile charm by Greg Hullett. Michael recalls his father’s broken promises, but he also witnesses, as we all do, the electric desire between his parents when Gerry takes Chrissie in his arms and they waltz up the light-filled path and into the woods.
The sisters must also contend with their aging beloved brother, a former priest returned from a 30-year mission in Uganda, with debilitating malaria and a hilariously touching preference for native dance rituals over Catholic mass. Scott Latham hits exactly the right note of comic pathos, as a forgetful man trying to fix some firm in his fragmented identity, caught between the wild, sun-filled world he left behind and the cold household his sisters are struggling to maintain.
The women lead their hardscrabble lives with grace and humor, and their now middle-aged nephew even tells us something of their final fates. Still, we feel most the souring generosity of spirit in this often querulous but ultimately loving household. Despite Michael’s despair of ever finding the right words to describe what is in his heart, Friel gives his characters a wealth of rich and nuanced dialogue, both earthy and lyrical. The show runs two and a half hours, plus a 15-minute intermission to grab a beer or a special Baileys and whiskey drink.
Whatever you order, you’ll leave with a song in your heart, delivered with a lovely Irish lilt.