By Jana Rivera
IF YOU ONLY see one play this year, it should be Dancing at Lughnasa now playing at Arizona Theatre Company. Yes, you read it right, Arizona Theatre Company. I, too, believed that ATC was stuck in the doldrums again this season with plays like Noises Off and The Old Matador, but Dancing at Lughnasa emerges with the passion and exhilaration that's been lying dormant at ATC for awhile. Brian Friel's autobiographical, Tony Award-winning play about five sisters living in rural Ireland in 1936 comes to life with poetic force on ATC's stage with a prime cast under the skillful direction of Matthew Wiener, ATC's associate artistic director. Wiener is also responsible for the direction of several other ATC standouts in otherwise humdrum seasons such as Nora and Death and the Maiden.
The story of the five Mundy sisters is unobtrusively narrated by Michael (Lawrence Hecht), the illegitimate son of Chris Mundy. He tells us the bittersweet story of 40-year-old Kate (Michele Marsh), the eldest of the sisters, a conventional school teacher desperately clinging to the proprieties of Catholicism as if they will keep her fragile world from shattering; Maggie (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), the sister with a feisty, fun-loving spirit and a fiery, aching soul; Agnes (Michele Farr), the quiet sister who cloaks her painful memories and desires behind a helpful facade, but cannot keep them from surfacing from time to time; Rose (Corliss Preston), a simple-minded innocent who wants what everyone wants--to be loved; and Chris (Jessica Knoblauch), a young mother at 28.
The never-married sisters--a common status for women in 1936 Ireland--live in relative poverty in the family home with their 53-year-old brother Jack (Charles Lanyer), a Catholic priest who has recently returned from a mission in Africa under less than exemplary circumstances, plagued with malaria. It's harvest time, time for the "Lughnasa" celebration, a celebration of fertility.
The celebration sparks a restlessness in the sisters; a yearning for a life never lived and dreams never realized. As they work side-by-side in the kitchen, they listen to music that fades in and out on the wireless Marconi radio. When Kate returns from town, she brings news of Maggie's old school chum, her marriage, and her twin daughters. This prefaces the most powerful scene in the play--actually one of the most powerful scenes I've experienced in any play. And I mean experience. There's more to it than simply watching and listening.
The women begin to dance. It sounds simple, but the scene uproots the complexities of the human experience fused with the longing of the soul and the alternate dampening and lifting of the spirit. Wiener and choreographer Jim Corti approach the scene, and indeed all scenes in Dancing at Lughnasa, with uninhibited passion, and all five women, together and individually, carry us to the "other side," the pagan side, the side repressed by everyday realities.
Moments of magical intensity when the radio is playing are interrupted with scenes of humor and familial tenderness when the radio is dead. Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa succeeds in breaking through the barriers of its 1936 Irish setting with a universal essence that transcends language with music and movement, and reaches into any culture in any era.
While all five women give splendid performances, Van Valkenburgh is magnificent in the role of Maggie. She superbly portrays Maggie's haunting desires, then easily slips back to the playful illusion she shares with her sisters. Hecht also displays his versatility during a narration requiring a range of emotions, in addition to providing the voice and sentiments of a 7-year-old boy. Charles Shaw Robinson is charming as Gerry, Michael's drifting father, and Lanyer is amusing as Jack.
Dancing at Lughnasa is marred only by the compulsive chatting done by ATC audiences, and their perfect timing--the middle of a quiet monologue is surely the time to unzip the handbag and rummage through for the mint wrapped in cellophane, you know the kind you have to fumble with for several moments to remove that nasty little wrapper.
And, if you're unfortunate enough to be sitting toward the back under the balcony where whispers are magnified, you'll be privy to a few little side discussions between the ATC ushers themselves. This isn't the first time I've had ushers stand above me at the row's end or along the back and discuss some business obviously so urgent they can't wait until intermission.
I've been loyally attending ATC plays (even the bad ones) for more than six years, so I think I'm entitled to say this to the ATC audiences and ushers: Shut up!
Arizona Theatre Company's production of Dancing at Lughnasa continues with performances through March 4 at the Temple of Music and Art, Alice Holsclaw Theatre, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $17 to $26 with discounts available for seniors, students and military. For more information call 8844877. For reservations call 622-2823.
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