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We Should Be Dancing
By James Yeara

Dancing at Lughnasa
By Brian Friel, directed by Steve Croats Home Made Theater, Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Springs, through May 12

Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, currently at Home Made Theater—receiving its fourth area production in seven years—is this Irish playwright’s most accessible work. The drama of the five Mundy sisters living in the mythic West Ireland town of Ballybeg (Irish for “small town”) in 1936 shows the playwright’s mastery of the comic and tragic. As in other Friel plays such as Molly Sweeney, The Lovers, and the incomparable Faith Healer, Dancing at Lughnasa features a look at the particular and peculiar of working-class characters who, through Friel’s craft, illuminate the richness of the human soul.

“Universal” is too small a word to describe Friel’s appeal. That the audience knows early on the tragic fates of each character adds to the richness of the play—Friel masters time. Like an Irish Tennessee Williams, Friel creates memory plays in which characters inhabit past, present and future simultaneously, being both living and dead. This concept may read as too complex, but onstage Friel delineates his dramaturgy so perfectly that as his plays unfold, an audience—and, if they are very good, a cast—will become enmeshed in the playwright’s weave of time. Whether as an audience or an actor, there are few theatrical experiences as satisfying as being allowed to enter fully into a Friel play.

Since its inaugural production at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1990, Dancing at Lughnasa (a 1992 Tony Award winner) has captured audiences through the play’s verbal and physical rhythms; it’s an Irish play about Irish women and their besotted men, but it appeals to the humanity in us all. This is a play that cuts across the culture that inspires it and connects with anyone who has had a family, has had a past, lives in a present, and finds the future a mystery. It is a play that inspires awe. With a Williams-esque nod to autobiography (like the play’s adult narrator, Michael, Friel had five aunts and was 7 in 1936), Dancing at Lughnasa shows the five Mundy sisters on the eve of the Feast of Lugh, the Celtic god of the harvest (among other things), and ends not with the blowing out of a candle, but with kites ready to dance in the wind and characters ready to dance without the need for words.

In previous area productions at Oldcastle, Capital Repertory, and Schenectady Civic, Dancing at Lughnasa did capture the rhythms and complexity of Friel’s play. The struggle to be Irish and Catholic dissolved into the wild and whirling words of Celtic paganism. In previous productions the fecundity of the characters burst forth from their reserve at the play’s opening. Each previous area production captured the spirit of native dance finally set free from the confines of Catholicism and parochial small-town life. Each previous production danced, fully, completely, physically, as well as orally.

Home Made Theater’s production on the sprawling Spa Little Theater stage seemed swamped by Friel’s energy, complexity and rhythm. Director Steve Coats did make the unique choice of having all the performers speak with the strained and unnatural rhythms of Father Jack, the Mundy sisters’ elder brother who returns to the family home after 25 years as a priest in an African leper colony. That all the performers seemed as unaccustomed to speaking English as Father Jack, who was sent home to Ireland for “going native,” makes for plenty of time to appreciate the painted mountains and wood panels of the set and to count the 11 brown buttons on eldest sister Kate’s dress. It was as if each performer was so focused on speaking the one Irish accent “trigger” word that there was a pause before the trigger word, an explosion of the trigger, then a satisfied pause to enjoy having gotten that trigger word correct. If you can imagine tap dancing to a waltz, you can imagine the effect at HMT.

While Home Made Theater has a long and proud history of producing very good productions of American plays, the dancing, words, spirit and rhythms of Friel’s popular play are lost to any who haven’t seen any of the previous excellent area productions of Dancing at Lughnasa.

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