Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel. Directed by John Trainor
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Making their debuts on the Ghent stage will be Jennifer Young (Pittsfield) as Rose, Kathleen Carey (Albany) as Kate, Alex Lincoln (Lenox) as Agnes, Dana Harrison (Lenox) as Chris
"Nothing in their heads but dancing."
One thing has always confused me about the 1992 Tony Award winning play, Dancing at Lughnasa. Of the five Mundy sisters, only two manage to escape their drab lives at Ballybeg and those are the two whose lives become an unsolvable mystery to their nephew Michael who narrates the tale. Brian Friel is such a good writer that he amazes me with his failure to even imagine a better solution to their story. But enough of the cavil. Such matters are indeed trivial when the Ghent Playhouse mounts a production that is stellar in every aspect and this one item is out of their control to begin with.
Christina Mundy has a seven year old boy out of wedlock with a charmer named Gerry Evans. Her brother Jack, newly returned from a 27 year stay in Africa, calls the boy a "love-child" and his easily embarrassed sisters blush and agree that this is indeed the case. Jack, a Catholic priest who has worked with African lepers all this time, has returned home changed, a heathen at heart. His five unmarried sisters are eager to see him restored to good health, physical, mental, spiritual. One sister, Rose, is slightly feeble and a romantic to boot. Her constant companion, Agnes, is a frustrated old maid with romantic inclinations toward Christinaís swain. Kate, the rational one, a teacher whose demeanor undoubtedly terrifies eleven year old boys, tries to control her family while older sister Maggie keeps everyone laughing at her shenanigans and her need to sing and dance her way through a life that cannot be lived any other way.
Not so much a play as a memory of the way things played out for the Mundys in 1936 in County Donegal, Ireland, Dancing at Lughnasa, in a wonderful production locally, engages the hearts of its audience. Its excellent cast, working on a wonderful set, in perfect costumes and under the right sort of illumination, open their characters up, illuminate them for us, allowing us to participate in their joys and simple pleasures, their moments of fear and disillusion.
First and foremost there is Maggie, played with a luminous glow by Cathy Lee-Visscher. In this play Lee-Visscher comes into her own, transforming herself into this woman for whom eggs are nothing short of a miracle and a bawdy song nothing less than her privilege. She dances without warning, sings with abandon and loves her family with a generosity that is instantly accessible and overwhelmingly charming. The actress has never had a role here that gave her the chance to sparkle this way and she is a delight.
As Christina, the narratorís mother, Dana Harrison is Lee-Visscherís equal. Here is an actress who can express joy with her eyes and her body, even as her mouth says simple things, non-committal things. Her Christina can lie about her feelings while revealing them at the same time and do it naturally. Harrison, seen often at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, MA, is a perfect addition to the company in Ghent. Her talents are a welcome new addition.
Shakespeare & Co. has also introduced three other players to this company in this production. Ryan Winkles, who plays Gerry, is a charmer. He knows just how to move among the Mundy girls to bring out every scattered emotional reaction from them. He romances Christina, entices Agnes, charms Maggie, annoys Kate and inspires Rose all with the same gestures, glances and movement. He even looks good wearing large feathered plumes in his hat. Jennifer Young, as Rose has the expert subtleties needed to make her character true and honest. Her role is the smallest of the sisters roles, and yet she is constantly a catalyst for the others and this tiny effect alters things for all of them in the second act. Young handles the scene brilliantly. Alexandra Lincoln, as Agnes, has the hardest job. Her role is that of a woman who needs to be liked and yet resists just that in an effort to remain her own person. Lincoln has short bursts of energy followed by long spates of inaction and she never once made a mistake in transition, presenting a vital and very real Agnes.
Tracy Trimm plays Jack with his usual artistic flair. This man can be over-the-top in a role and under-the-radar in another. As Jack he stays somewhere between the two until his second-act reverie about traditional ceremonies in the world Jack has left in order to return home to his sisters. Here the actor disappears completely into his character and takes command with one of Frielís greatest speeches. So if the lives of five unmarried sisters isnít of any interest to you, take in the play for this man and his vivid dreams of an alternative reality.
Kevin Wixsom is Michael, the adult whose memories are haunted by his Ballybeg childhood among this extended family. He has the most difficult role, really, narrating a tale that is simultaneously being played out in front of us. The narration is not the best written part of this play and it is hard to make it as interesting as it should be because we have visuals on which to concentrate as he speaks his story to us. Itís a matter of show, not tell, please and the playwright has chosen to do both. As the child, Michael, Wixsom is superb.
As Kate, the only true spinster in the clan, Kathleen Carey brings a tension into the room every time she enters. I have seen this actress before in other theaters presenting equally difficult women in plays without the humor of this one. She is a master at this sort of person and here it is her honesty and forthrightness as an actress that comes to the fore. Kate is hard to like. However, when her heart fires up and her emotions are at their most raw, her dancing moment is like no other in the play. She inspires the tears that donít come for any of the others.
Director John Trainor has balanced the talents of his cast with the needs of the characters and pulled off the near-impossible. He has brought real life to the stage without a single false moment, without an actory impulse in sight. It is as though he actually broke the outer walls of the house in Ballybeg and invited us to watch real people in action.
That house, by the way, designed by Ben Heyman, is one half of a set that seems to double the size of the Ghent Playhouse stage. It is beautifully built and painted and the set, along with Joanne Maurerís period-perfect clothing, and Bill Campís effective lighting, create a reality that is ideal for this play and its people.
A gift for St. Patrickís Day, Dancing at Lughnasa is the play to see this spring, a welcome addition, like snowdrops, daffodils and tulips: fragile and yet substantial.
Dancing at Lughnasa runs through Sunday, April 5. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. 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.