Rarely will you come across five sisters more hopelessly desperate to get their freaks on and shake their money-makers than those at the center of Dancing at Lughnasa. Agnes, Rose, Chris, Maggie and Kate are tethered to the Irish countryside and a life of tedious chores, each either past her prime or carrying too much baggage for matrimony, and their only reprieve is a good Irish jig or the prospect of a waltz. In the first act of this new production from the University of Montana Drama/Dance department, it seems all the sisters can do to break the monotony of their routine and the bleakness of their fate is reminisce about dance contests, excitedly plan to attend the next Harvest Dance, and fight frustration by angrily jigging right there in their home. It’s enough to make a theatergoer think that if Michael Flatley pranced through their door, they would share a collective orgasm so earth-shattering that their doomed futures and troubled pasts would disappear beneath the rubble.
But there is no Michael Flatley here. For the Mundy sisters, hope comes only in the form of the unreliable frequencies of a newly purchased radio. When the radio kicks on, spirits rise and escapism ensues. It’s fun while it lasts, but the darned thing overheats quickly and can only spit out its Irish folk music or crooning ballads for minutes at a time.
The radio is symbolic of everything else in this well-done, complexly lyrical play, where there’s never any doubt about the tragic ending and all anyone wants is to at least spend some time between now and then getting a groove on.
Dancing at Lughnasa was written by Northern Ireland native Brian Friel and debuted in Dublin in 1990 before moving to Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards, including that for best play. It’s set in the summer of 1936 on the fictional rural outskirts of Ballybeg—which translates from Gaelic to “small town”—and presented through the narrated memories of Michael, now grown up, but at the time of the action Chris’ 7-year-old son. In his opening monologue, Michael explains that it’s a summer he remembers for three distinct reasons: the return of his Uncle Jack, a Catholic priest who’s spent the last 25 years on a mission in Africa; an unexpected visit from his likeable deadbeat father; and, perhaps most memorable of all, the purchase of the household’s first radio, nicknamed Marconi.
The symbolism is thick in Friel’s script, and, aside from the importance of the radio, the dialogue merely brushes the surface of the play’s peripheral meanings. For instance, there’s the unease over Uncle Jack (Jake Patterson)—sick, frail and mentally fried from his time in Africa, it’s clear he’s abandoned most of his Catholic teachings and chosen instead to embrace the tribal rituals of the natives he was supposed to convert. He breaks into ceremonial dances and introduces traditional Ugandan customs, all while his eldest sister Kate (Nicki Poer), an intensely Catholic “righteous bitch,” prods him about getting back to saying Mass again. This storyline is set against rumors of the annual Celtic pagan ritual going on in the hills beyond Ballybeg, where they honor the God Lugh by burning bonfires and dancing for days on end; this year the sisters, who flirt with attending, are horrified to learn a boy has been burned in one of the ceremonies and may be dead.
These peripheral cautionary tales about breaking from routine or proper Catholic traditions—you’ll get burned, you’ll lose your mind—are all about testing the women at the center of the play. More than anything, Dancing at Lughnasa is about the five Mundy sisters and how each is hopelessly screwed. Kate is a control freak who realizes the household she’s worked so hard to support is crumbling. Agnes (Martha Neslen) grinds through her chores like a mule, but stands to lose her job knitting gloves at home when a factory opens nearby. Rose (Sarah Jo Wojciechowski-Prill) is mentally slow and being suspiciously wooed by a sketchy married man. Maggie (Krisanne Markel) is a smoker, a bit of the black sheep who was never able to explore her talents as a singer and dancer. Chris (Sheena Hietala) has her son Michael to cling to, but is haunted by the occasional visit from the boy’s father, Gerry Evans (Zac Thomas), a man who’s more charming than responsible, more sweet-tongued than sincere; she gets so excited each time he arrives, but it’s clear that his promises will never amount to anything, and his presence ultimately does more harm than good. Each sister has her own story, but they’re bound by a collective sense that this is it for them. There’s not much reward in chasing anything better—be it a new job, Gerry Evans, the sketchy husband or the tribal rituals in the hills—because each is perceived to be equally fruitless. That leaves dancing and the radio as the only salvation, and even the latter is maddeningly unreliable.
Director Brad Poer, a graduate student, does an admirable job wading through the content and allowing his impressive cast—highlighted by outstanding performances from Wojciechowski-Prill, Markel and Thomas—to carry the play. Dancing at Lughnasa never seems to reach a climax, but rather ebbs and flows with each dose of harsh reality—a series of punches to the gut rather than one blow to the head. It’s a meticulously complete portrait, almost three hours long, with every fate revealed and, alas, never a sign of Michael Flatley.
Dancing at Lughnasa runs tonight through Sunday, March 4, and Tuesday, March 7, through Sunday, March 11, at 7:30 PM in the Masquer Theatre on the UM campus. $11/$10 students/$5 kids. Call 243-4581.