DANCING AT LUGHNASA, by Brian Friel. Directed by Mary Boyer. Starring Kathleen Fisher, Jason McCool, Elizabeth Anne Quincy, Mary Beth Kowalski, Adrea Fletcher and Fred Rueck. At T. Schreiber Studio, 151 W. 26th St., NYC. Through June 9.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” is probably Brian Friel’s most successful work, apart from the frequently produced “Philadelphia, Here I Come,” the Donegal-born playwright’s first real success, almost four decades ago.
The great strength of “Lughnasa,” with its uncomplicated tale of a quintet of lonely, unmarried sisters living in “the home of the Mundy family, two miles outside the village of Ballybeg,” is its accessibility.
Mere accessibility, however, has its limitations, just as “Dancing at Lughnasa” has always had its detractors, mainly among people who felt that it careened far too close to outright soap opera. The New Yorker Magazine, when the original Abbey Theatre production opened its successful run on Broadway, dismissed it as “the memory play from hell.”
Only Friel’s writerly skill and dexterity, combined with the work of the original director, Patrick Mason, and his sterling Irish cast kept the play’s initial staging from tumbling into the yawning pit of sentimental melodrama.
The well-intentioned new production at the T. Schreiber Studio, the first serious mounting of “Dancing at Lughnasa” since the Abbey staging, is less successful in avoiding the traps the play contains.
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One of those traps is the presence in the play of Michael, the illegitimate son of Chrissie, one of the Mundy sisters. Michael, at times, as an adult, addresses the audience directly, detailing the play’s mainly melancholy events as he remembers them.
At other moments, as a child, he plays scenes with the actresses in the roles of his mother and his aunts, generally standing behind them speaking in a childlike voice, while they play out their scenes, crouching or leaning over in order to better deliver their lines to a short, unseen presence.
The Abbey production somehow managed to make this device work, while Mary Boyer’s version at the Studio has a good deal of trouble pulling it off.
The new production has cast its women better than its men. Mary Beth Kowalski is convincingly starchy and yet inherently sympathetic as Kate, the eldest Mundy daughter, a schoolteacher forced by circumstances to function as the sole support of the family.
As the reckless, fun-loving Maggie, given to Woodbines and word games, Ann burrows makes it easy to understand why she is both the child’s favorite aunt and a decided thorn in the side of the rigidly self-disciplined Kate.
Michael’s mother, Chrissie, impressionable and apparently eternally an easy mark for the questionable charms of Gerry Owens, the luckless traveling salesman from Wales who fathered her child on an earlier visit, Adrea Fletcher is appealing and credible.
Best of all are Kathleen Fisher and Elizabeth Anne Quincy as, respectively, the mildly retarded Rose and the self-sacrificing Agnes, who harbors a suppressed longing for Gerry even as she functions as her mentally challenged sister’s protector.
Fisher is particularly effective in suggesting Rose’s mental limitations, and the stubbornness that accompanies them, without turning her character into a cartoon or in any way compromising her appeal as a woman.
The cast’s three male members have their problems. As Uncle Jack, a priest returned from pastoral duties in the African missions in some vague, unspecified disgrace, the elfin Robert Olsen somehow fails to make his description of life in Uganda particularly credible.
And there’s another problem. Since Friel’s text suggests a possibly sexual relationship between the priest and his African houseboy as one of the causes of his downfall, and of the mental breakdown he appears to be experiencing, events in the daily news unavoidably tend to leap up between this portion of the play and its audience.
Fred Rueck, as the hopelessly unrealistic gramaphone salesman, Gerry, simply cannot come up with the grace and charm that made two of the five Mundy girls fall in love with him. As Michael, admittedly an unusually tricky part, Jason McCool is too lumpish to deliver the sensitivity and insight the role requires.
Director Boyer’s set design nests Friel’s play against an appealingly dioramic photographic background of rich green fields, sturdy stone fences, and, in the distance, the bluish, burnished mountains of Donegal.
The Studio’s relatively small space seems to militate against the ultimate effectiveness of this peculiarly claustrophobic staging of Friel’s fine play, with the Mundy girls packed like sardines in the space representing the farmhouse in which they dwell, and, even more destructive to the potential success of the play, with the actors having to spit their lines directly into the faces of cramped audience.
The problem, ultimately, is one of ‘sthetic distance. Admirable as the impulse to revive Friel’s beautifully evocative “Dancing at Lughnasa” surely was, the particular circumstances operative at the T. Schreiber Studio work against the play’s optimal realization.
— Joseph Hurley