Everyman Theatre’s season-opening play “Dancing at Lughnasa” is a poetic, nostalgic remembrance of a family teetering on the brink of change in 1936 rural Ireland.
Playwright Brian Friel—”the Irish Chekhov,” according to a dramaturgical article in the play program—presents the subtle strain between five adult unmarried sisters in this play, whose name refers to a late-summer pagan festival in the Irish countryside. Most of the action happens around the time of the festival. The sisters are outcasts in the fictional Irish town of Ballybeg, where dancing, children out of wedlock, and non-Catholic beliefs are frowned upon.
They try to grasp onto traditional values and expectations of women and Catholics in 1930s Ireland, even as they slip out of their reach. This is especially true of eldest sister Kate, the stand-in “matriarch” of the family, played with wavering restraint on the verge of collapse by Bari Hochwald. She cuts short an uproarious eruption of dancing in the kitchen, and urges their brother Jack, a priest who recently returned from 20 years in Uganda, to lead Mass again. He (played by the perennially excellent Bruce Randolph Nelson) would rather teach his family about the ancestral rituals of his adopted home. The change in his religious preferences ends up ostracizing the unmarried sisters further, and there’s the implication bread-winner Kate loses her teaching job because of it.
The rocky introduction of modernity is symbolized nicely by a Marconi radio that only works a fraction of the time. When Cole Porter fills the home, there’s hope that this family will be fine. Yes, they can go dancing and meet dudes at the Lughnasa festival! Yes, they can have happy-ever-after with their baby-daddy! Then, joltingly, the radio stops. This is a tragic Irish story after all, where the baby-daddy has another family in Wales and all the sisters die partner-less.
The story is punctuated a handful of times with monologues delivered by Michael (Tim Getman), the adult son of the never-married Chris. The majority of the play is his recollection of one late August in 1936 when his family was last all together, and his memories are performed by the ensemble cast.
Director Amber Paige McGinnis interestingly has the other characters talk to air where Michael would’ve been when they address the boy, and Getman responds as the child from the periphery. The choice underlines the ghost-like nature of memories, whose dreamlike nature is complemented by lush golden lighting by Jay Herzog and a gorgeous set by Yu-Hsuan Chen.
McGinnis exaggerates the action in Michael’s memory of late August in 1936. When the sisters dance, they dance—they’d be at home kicking boots alongside Kate and Leo in Titanic’s steerage. Each sister’s characterization is distinct, too, as a child’s memory of his aunties might be. Kate is no-nonsense and desperately trying to keep the family together. Rose (Labhaoise Magee) is wild and unhinged. Agnes (Annie Grier) is introverted and protective. Chris (Katie Kleiger) is hopelessly romantic. Maggie (Megan Anderson) is the funny one whose dreams have passed her by.
Each actor embraces these surface characterizations while also hinting at intriguing depths of inner worlds and personal histories. Anderson has a startling shift from joking to being on the verge of tears remembering her youth with her best friend, who has grown into a beautiful woman with an equally beautiful husband and twin teenage daughters. With just their expressions, Grier and Kleiger intriguingly tell an entire back story of each of their relationships with Michael’s father—the philandering, shiftless Gerry (Danny Gavigan)—when he pops up at their house after being gone a year and takes turns dancing with both.
However, the back stories of these characters are never revealed. It’s all up to interpretation. Adult Michael discloses halfway through the play that Agnes and Rose left home shortly after the play takes place and died destitute in London. Say what? Why? It’s left to the audience to wonder. Like a vivid dream, “Dancing at Lughnasa” stirs a wistful feeling with many questions left unanswered.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” runs through Oct. 7 at Everyman Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit everymantheatre.org/dancing-lughnasa.