Saturday, December 7, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Dancing at Lughnasa"

Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), Irish playwright Brian Friel's semi-autobiographical award-winning play. quietly and brilliantly signals the end of the 2019 "Ensemble Season" at the Cloverdale Playhouse.

At its conclusion after two-and-a-half-hours, the opening night's full house erupted into applause after a moment that renowned English director Peter Brook describes as "the curious sort of silence you get from a large number of people being quiet": testimony that director Sarah Walker Thornton and her ensemble of actors and designers succeeded in their interpretation of a remarkable play.

J. Scott Grinstead's evocative minimalist scenic design -- arena staging where the audience surrounds the playing area -- enhances the intimacy of this "memory play", whose narrator Michael Evans [Daniel Ryan Teehan] looks back to 1936 when he was seven years old, and the influences of his mother and her four sisters [all five are  unmarried] as they navigate poverty, an impending war, industrialization, family and patriarchal conflicts, and the contrasting of pagan rituals with traditional Catholic ones.

This is not a romanticized Irish "shamrock and leprechauns" play by any means; rather, it conjures the spirit of the Irish people's ability to come together in times of crisis, relying on the bonds of family love to get them through even the worst of times.

Michael's reminiscences transport us to the fictitious town of Ballybeg, where the five Mundy sisters eke out a living and fight to keep body and soul together. -- Kate [Maureen Costello] is the eldest, the breadwinner, and the prim defender of traditional Catholicism; Maggie [Angela Dickson] is the earthy jokester whose riddles entertain herself more than others; Agnes [Katie Schmidt] and mentally slow Rose [Emily Burke] knit gloves to bring in a bit of extra money; and Michael's mother Christina [Katie Wu], the youngest of the housekeepers awaits the annual visit of Michael's father Gerry Evans [Ari Hagler], a charming Welsh ne'er do well whose promises are never kept. -- And their brother Father Jack [Adam Shephard] is back with them after many years as a missionary priest in Africa, suffering from malaria and memory loss as well as the scandal of having "gone native" in Africa and bringing disrepute to the family.

It is also set during the feast of Lughnasa, signaling the start of the harvest with music and dancing to appease the Celtic god Lugh.  -- An unreliable radio nicknamed "Marconi" periodically provides music that encourages singing and of course dancing: ballroom, folk, and one remarkably spirited improvisation when all five sisters drop their inhibitions in celebration of their humanity.

On the surface, not much happens in the play; yet, beneath the paucity of action, Michael's remembrances peel back the many layers of each character's personalities, their work and their beliefs, their repressions and passions, their stalwart support of one another, and the love they cherish despite their differences. -- It is to the strong ensemble's credit that each character is so fully developed through their interpretations and interactions that we invest in their lives and allow the final moment to sink in before the applause.

Michael tells us the unfortunate fate of each of the characters, yet we are left with a final tableau before that happens, still during the feast of Lughnasa: their final dance, embracing one another and swaying gently to the music that reinforces what matters most to them -- family.