Thursday, January 29, 2009
Ah, sweet Jesu, the Irish! A gifted lot, you know, close to the earth; fine women and, o' course, those charmin' but useless men of theirs. Think back with me, now, to the early days, and by that I mean, say, 1936, when the Mundy sisters had just gotten their radio, which back then they called a "Marconi. . . "
An ensemble piece for five women actors, Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa gives us an Ireland that is now mythic. Inside the memory space of the Playhouse stage and under the influence of the now-grown narrator Michael, played with soothing persuasiveness by Huck Huckaby, the five unmarried Mundy sisters live a simple but rich existence in their rural cottage.
We do not really know why none of these women ever married. The visible male characters cannot match them in character, intelligence or dedication. In the moment of this telling, Michael is just a boy, their indulged young man child. Father Jack, their uncle, has returned, bewildered and mildly heretical after 30 years of missionary work in Uganda, and he wanders through the cottage not always recognizing them. Gerry, the useless twinkling-eyed perpetual suitor to Chrissie, got young Michael upon her six years earlier but has no thought of them in his dreams of traveling salesman success and service in the International Brigade in Spain.
The warm, safe space of cottage and family is threatened and will eventually be destroyed by outside forces, narrator Michael reveals to us. The market for the handicrafts made by youngest sisters Agnes and Rose disappears when a glove factory opens nearby. The school dismisses Kate, the principal breadwinner, on the pretense that the school population is waning, but almost certainly because of the scandal wafting after Father Jack. That useless Gerry disappears, eventually, back to his native Wales, with ne'er a thought for the Mundy sisters.
But within that threatened household, what a vivid, emotional and supportive circle those sisters make! Babs George as Kate (rightmost, below) is the voice of propriety, bastion against the heathen carrying on of the semi-pagan Irish and their dance over bonfires on the ancient rite of Lughnasa. The Marconi fitfully erupts in a fiddle tune that enchants the sisters including Kate into stepping, whirling and jigs, until Kate with effort shuts down that celebration.
Michael's mother Chrissie (Lara Toner, in gray sweater) dotes upon him, as does his brash aunt Maggie (Cyndi Williams, far left). Chrissie's heart remains with gallant, useless Gerry although her conscience resolutely says "no" to his flattering and dancin'; her sister Agnes (Rebecca Robinson, in brown sweater) is plainly pining away for the same man, or any man, or any hope of love. And sister Rose (Margaret Hoard, in checked sweater), perhaps the youngest, certainly the simplest and most headstrong, just will not give up going out in the countryside with that married man.
The grown Michael recounts the fates of each of his aunts -- except, unless memory fails me, that of Aunt Maggie, the liveliest and most solid of them all. Cyndi Williams in this role gives us a woman of good appetite and great humor, with an emblematic moment in which a deep puff on a cigarette transforms her, says she, from sadness to happiness.
This is the melancholy, nostalgic side of the Irish -- not the wake, but the dirge. Director Don Toner and the female principals have created the feel of a continuous rapport among the sisters. The women reveal their vulnerabilities in words, subtle gesture and body language, and in their scrupulous attention to one another onstage. The unselfconscious Father Jack (right) is the sacred fool for this bunch - - Steve Shearer plays him with both openness and restraint, the calm voice of a reason unimaginable and unacceptable in this milieu. Brian Coughlin as Gerry is the bane of Irish womankind -- sunny, plausible and confidently attractive.
Set design by Don Toner, costumes by Buffy Manners, Irish dance choreographed by the impressively Gaelic Eimer Ni Mhaoiledidigh-Donnellan, and lighting by the Gunn brothers -- all contribute strongly to the creation of the protected space of memory.
Toner directed Dancing at Lughnasa at Austin's Live Oak Theatre in 1993 with Babs George as Kate, the same role. There is another point of continuity -- Steve Shearer was the merry Gerry in that production and he has now become Father Jack. Those facts offer the opportunity to speculate about theatre, memory, and transformation, just as the Playhouse is moving into its 2009 campaign in hopes of raising capital for a new home.
Robert Faires' review in the Austin Chronicle of January 29: ". . .Don Toner's staging here . . .did make me appreciate anew Friel's lyrical, stirring script and the preciousness and power of memory."