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Salt Lake City Weekly Longing and Loss

"Dancing at Lughnasa" pits Christian repression against Irish pagan ritual.

By Scott C. Morgan

JANUARY 26, 1998:  On the surface, Dancing at Lughnasa could be easily dismissed as an Irish variation on The Glass Menagerie: Both works have countless similarities, ranging from the same narrator memory-play structure right down to symbolic objects that litter each play's landscape.

Despite the many traits the plays share, Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa (pronounced Loo-nes-uh) is in no way a pale imitation of a Tennessee Williams masterwork. Instead, Friel uses a familiar playwrighting technique to question religious traditions while sweeping the audience into the bittersweet world of his characters' nostalgic memories.

Told through the childhood memories of narrator Michael Mundy (Max Robinson), Dancing at Lughnasa follows the story of five middle-aged and unmarried sisters in 1930s rural Ireland.

While poor, the Mundy sisters have attained a high status in town due to their "famous" uncle Jack (Richard Mathews) serving on a Catholic mission to convert the lepers in Africa. Under the staunch leadership of the eldest sister Kate (Giulia Pagano), the Mundy sisters have carved out a respectable place in their community even though the youngest sister Chris (Tara Falk) had a child out of wedlock several years ago.

But when the ailing uncle Jack returns to town (going on and on about African customs), the Mundy sisters' ordered world gradually falls apart. Just as the yearly harvest festival — named after the pagan god Lugh — approaches, the sisters are forced to struggle with unforseen changes and problems. The faith of the family is brought into serious question, while some sisters nostalgically remember their past before conservative values began to dominate their lives.

Throughout Dancing at Lughnasa, a subdued modern-day battle between paganism and Christianity takes place. In the end, the play effectively shows how the people of a "Catholic" Ireland are not far removed from natives of a pagan Africa.

The positive and negative extremes of giving into passion or leading a life of respectable repression is contrasted in different degrees through each Mundy sister. One major instance involves Chris' beau Gerry (Patrick Boll), who saunters back into town to see his illegitimate son. Burned once and still wary, Chris lets her defenses fall again as Gerry starts his patented smooth-talking. Each sister enviously swoons in their own way over the dashing, but utterly useless, man who eventually leaves Chris with as much pain as the lonely sisters who gaze longingly from the window.

photo: Fred Hayes
Dance fever: Giulia Pagano, Tara Folk, Joyce Cohen and Brenda Foley in Dancing at Lughnasa.
At the other extreme, Kate's enduring faith sees her through to a respectable position, but not without a great deal of pain in the process.

But in Dancing at Lughnasa's war between pagan and Christian traditions, the victor actually turns out to be the new force of technology that threatens to usurp both religious traditions and the Irish way of life. This is symbolically seen early on, as the sisters constantly refer to their temperamental radio while virtually ignoring the miniature Virgin Mary stature placed on top of it.

Indeed, the unstoppable drive of technology forever disrupts the Mundy family, which prompts Michael to reminisce about the happier times.

Filled with wonderful humor and touching pathos, Dancing at Lughnasa's lyrical language casts a spell and warmly invites the entire audience into the Mundy home. Pioneer Theatre Company's vivid illustration of the play is truly a theatrical wonder, doing fine justice to Friel's wise and poetic work.

Director John Going has assembled a strong cast that hits the dramatic mark almost all of the time. Each one of the sisters' performances commands attention, from Jo Twiss' wise-cracking and audience-pleasing Maggie to Brenda Foley's honest turn as the mentally-handicapped Rose.

Joyce Cohen's performance as the spinsterish Agnes is heart-breaking, particularly when she is led to dance around the yard near the end of the play. Jayne Luke's choreography is another standout, especially when talk of the Lughnasa festival and music from the radio spur the sisters to burst into a dance full of energy and unrestrained joy.

As Gerry, Patrick Boll drips with phony sophistication. Boll succeeds in making his character likable, while emphasizing that underneath he's still a cad. Away from his usual PTC dithery-British-gentleman role, Max Robinson does a great job doing something completely different. As the narrator, Robinson helps establish the play's evocative mood while bringing the character's harsh knowledge to light.

The only weak link in PTC's Dancing at Lughnasa is Richard Mathews as uncle Jack. Mathews' dialect is virtually indistinguishable (Is he going for Irish or Swahili?), and his pacing dangerously slows down the action of the play. One can hear the audience become restless for the focus to shift off Mathews and back to the other characters.

Peter Harrison's Irish countryside set is clever, with the lush growth nearly overflowing into the kitchen of the Mundy home. A nice combination of slightly skewed surrealism blends with the realistic items of the house.

With PTC's Dancing at Lughnasa, the nostalgic memory play is not only alive and well, it's dancing high Irish kick-steps.

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