THE BASICS: Brian Friel’s award winning Irish drama, which debuted in Dublin in 1990, plays in repertory at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara on the Lake (Shaw Festival) through October 15th. Krista Jackson directs a cast of eight. LUGHNASA, with its single intermission, runs approximately two hours and twenty minutes.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The action (what there is of it) unfolds in a tiny hamlet in Ireland during the summer of 1936. Michael, the narrator and voice of the playwright himself (the play his largely autobiographical), sets the stage, introducing us to the five unmarried sisters (one, Christina, is his mother) who are raising him, a “love child”, as best they can in this unconventional family unit. Gerry, Michael’s father, a Welsh wandering salesman/ne’er do well, continues to woo Christina, sporadically, but things never do work out. The sisters’ elder brother, Father Jack, returns from missionary work in Africa, where, it becomes progressively apparent, the natives have actually converted him. Cheerful but confused and in ill health, he dies not long after his homecoming.
Friel’s play is a valentine to rural Ireland in a more innocent time, mixing laughter and sorrow in fairly equal measure.
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: Friel’s play is a valentine to rural Ireland in a more innocent time, mixing laughter and sorrow in fairly equal measure. It’s a memory play, a la “Glass Menagerie”, but a much lesser achievement, in my opinion. The five Mundy sisters are at the heart of it all—their individual joys, fears and quirks, their small alliances, and the love that binds them, and provides the foundation upon which young Michael’s life is built.
Sadly, except for their one terrific dance together, near the end of Act One, the Shaw production never quite brings these ladies to full and vibrant life.
Sadly, except for their one terrific dance together, near the end of Act One, the Shaw production never quite brings these ladies to full and vibrant life. The problem, I believe, is more with the direction and staging than with the actual spoken dialogue. A lot of the chat and banter that forms the bulk of the piece is tossed off quite quickly, and with little regard as to whether the words “carry”, or the attending thoughts register. I must say that a fair amount of what I presume to be sparkling conversation was lost on these (admittedly senior) ears.
The set by Sue LePage, unusually drab by Shaw Festival standards, relegates its single interior to upstage left. This keeps the ladies further than need be from the audience, and works against a much-needed intimacy. Except for Sarena Parmar, who has been deliberately (and to my mind, unhappily) cast against type, the sisters form a credible unit. All are skillful, with Tara Rosling (redeeming herself from last year’s chilly “Alice in Wonderland”) especially fine as the sassy Maggie. As our narrator, the grown up Michael, Patrick Galligan supplies the frame, and also the linguistic poetry. Positioned downstage most of the time, he connects effortlessly with the audience in a way which has us wondering if, in the final analysis, this is not “his” show. Wily Shaw veteran Peter Millard also shines as the frail, pixilated Father Jack.
The costumes have a drab but appropriate Great Depression look. Fiona Byrne, who plays Kate, engineered the aforementioned wonderful dance sequence.
IN SUM: DANCING AT LUGHNASA, an acknowledged modern classic, is slim of plot, but has an inescapable charm and poignancy. The present production at the Shaw has its points, certainly, but doesn’t completely deliver the goods.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!