Another 'Dance'

Arizona Repertory Theater gives 'Lughnasa' a stab.

Memory amplifies while it simplifies; our minds can strip the past of all but a few striking details, and those remaining specificities create new foundations for our personal histories.

So when the adult Michael Mundy thinks back to a particular summer of his Irish childhood, he recalls August 1936 as one long moment of hope and love before his family quietly disintegrated.

Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, now being presented by the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre, tells Michael's half-remembered tale with warmth and wistfulness, two qualities emphasized by Eve Himmelheber's quiet, expansive direction. In this production, it's more of a daydream than a play, sometimes losing focus now and then, not quite ringing true, but the story remains touching nonetheless.

Its characters are close through both affinity and circumstance, a loving if not entirely peaceful family barely surviving in hard times. Kate, a flinty schoolteacher (Lindsay Fite), heads a household of unmarried sisters who work hard to maintain their home.

If Kate is the family's authority figure, Maggie (Carley Preston) is its impulsive, big-hearted nurturer. Agnes (Sarah Hayes) stands stably by, tending the simple-minded but strong-willed Rose (Lori Lee Rogers). Youngest sister Christina (Allison Dragony) has had her brush with independence, which resulted in the birth of a son, Michael (Spencer Dooley).

One summer day, the boy's mostly absent Welsh father, Gerry (Ian Delaney), passes through on his way to the Spanish Civil War. This is just after the sisters' addled older brother, Jack (Alec Fairey), has returned from 25 years of missionary work in Uganda. All these people converge just as the family is about to fall apart.

Jack initially seems to be little more than an eccentric bystander brought in for comic relief, but his presence is essential. Jack long ago went native, and the African village in which he served is now more of a home to him than this farmhouse outside the small town of Ballybeg, County Donegal. Through Jack's reminiscences and the sisters' yearning to participate in their own local festivities, it becomes clear that the Irish locals mix Catholicism with paganism just as readily as the Africans. In the summertime, after Mass, the more extroverted residents of Ballybeg trudge into the hills to dance at the harvest festival of Lughnasa, named for the Celtic god of music and light.

Kate nixes her sisters' plans to leap through the festival's bonfires; instead, the women find a moment of release dancing to the radio at home. Later, Christina and Gerry find a moment of rapprochement dancing together through the garden gate down to the road. Dancing is key to this play. As the adult Michael observes, in dancing, language surrenders to movement; words are no longer necessary, and the dancers are briefly liberated from the earthbound reality (and illusions) of talk.

Arizona Theatre Company presented Dancing at Lughnasa around 1995, and that production has never been surpassed--not by the UA production, and not by the 1999 film version--in the moment when the sisters turn on the radio and dance. At ATC, that moment was ecstatic, primitive and frightening, three minutes' release from repression and routine, with each sister doing a little solo that revealed more about her character than could two hours of dialogue.

That brief dance scene passes unremarkably at the UA, but one element that does work more effectively than at ATC is the treatment of Michael. The adult Michael narrates the story--it's his personal, selective recollection two or three decades later--but he also becomes involved in the action, stepping into the child's place. At ATC, the actor playing Michael clearly differentiated the adult from the boy. Here, Dooley plays almost everything as a man, spending only a moment now and then occupying the boy's physical space, soon slipping off to the side to watch the scene play out as he says his lines from a safe distance. This is initially disconcerting, but it ultimately works nicely: Michael is delivering his boyhood lines largely in retrospect, and his words are weighted with the knowledge of what was yet to come.

The cast is uneven. Dooley stands out, as do Preston as the emotionally generous Maggie, and Delaney as the charming but not entirely secure Gerry. Most of the others acquit themselves ably though without much nuance. Fite's Kate, for example, is uniformly authoritarian, betraying no trace of love or self-awareness beneath her hard surface. As Jack, Fairey hardly suggests a malaria-addled, Africa-besotted man in his 50s. He seems more like a stoned grad student; you keep expecting him to stumble out and ask, "Dude, where's my kalimba?"

The accents, too, are variable, the Irish lilt fading in and out, and Delaney's Welsh accent sometimes seems to arrive via Jamaica. But the sound, scenery, costumes and lighting all come together nicely to support the actors and director in what remains a sad, moving memory play.

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