Warmth and Yearning

LTW presents an Irish tale that's touching, intimate and real with 'Dancing at Lughnasa'

Live Theatre Workshop's postage-stamp stage in an eastside strip mall can cramp plays in which the characters or the ideas need to get up and stretch. Yet it well serves the company's new production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, emphasizing the tightness of a 1930s Irish family, as well as the social claustrophobia that will hasten the family's disintegration.

This is at least the play's third production in Tucson in the past dozen years or so, not counting screenings of the film version. Arizona Theatre Company did it in the mid-1990s at the roomy Temple of Music and Art, bringing much of the action out of the Mundy family's little house and into the Irish countryside. It was a big, vibrant production whose most memorable aspect was the scene in which each of the Mundy sisters revealed her individual character through dance. The UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre also mounted the play four years ago. This was a less successful production, even though the audience was brought physically closer to the players; the director couldn't quite focus the action, and the actors couldn't quite focus their accents.

Live Theatre Workshop's production, sensitively directed by Sabian Trout, is, as a package, the most satisfying of them all. Even if--with one exception--the little dance sequence isn't as character-specific as ATC's, overall, this version is intimate, touching and emotionally real.

In Dancing at Lughnasa, we find the adult Michael Mundy reminiscing about the last truly happy summer of his Irish childhood, a final time of hope and love before his family quietly disintegrated. To borrow a description from an earlier review of mine, the play's characters are close through both affinity and circumstance, a loving if not entirely peaceful family barely surviving in hard times. Kate, a flinty schoolteacher (Kristi Loera), heads a household of unmarried sisters who work hard to maintain their home.

If Kate is the family's authority figure, Maggie (Holli Henderson) is its impulsive, big-hearted nurturer. Agnes (Elizabeth Leadon) stands stably by, tending the simple-minded but strong-willed Rose (Jodi Rankin). Youngest sister Christina (Molly Holleran) has had her brush with independence, which resulted in the birth of a son, Michael (Cliff Madison).

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

In some productions, Jack can seem to be little more than an eccentric bystander brought in for comic relief, but Wick and director Trout treat this character with the respect deserved by so essential a presence. 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 of the small town of Ballybeg, County Donegal; when he refers to "our people," he means the black lepers with whom he worked in Uganda. 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 the briefest release dancing to the radio at home. Later, Christina and Gerry find a moment of rapprochement dancing together at the garden gate. In both cases, the dancers are briefly liberated from the earthbound reality (and illusions) of talk. But the radio dies, and Gerry goes off, as he so often has in the past, and the sisters are left to their hard chores and scant prospects.

Playwright Friel gives almost every character some interesting material (only the role of Agnes seems undernourished), and every participant in the LTW production does it justice. Most touching of all is Henderson, whose Maggie is lively, earthy, a tireless worker, yet the one with the fullest, saddest understanding of her sisters' frustrations and foibles. Henderson, who is usually cast in broader comedy, here gives a quiet, gleaming performance. She never tries to steal attention from other actors to whom the focus shifts, but she's always worth watching for the depth and perspicacity of her wordless observation of the action around her.

Madison, another LTW regular who is generally trotted out for adept handling of less subtle comedy, here brings a gentle humor and wistfulness to the role of Michael. Holleran's Christina is bright, youthful and romantic, but not so romantic as to become a fool. Rankin's Rose is aptly childlike, and Leadon gives us a quiet and patient Agnes.

Loera's Kate is properly stiff and strict, although it would have been nice if she'd been just a bit more willing to suggest the faint softness that the character keeps well concealed. As mentioned, Wick brings needed dignity to the role of Jack; this is no old fool doddering around in an African headdress, but a reasonable man longing, like the adult Michael, for a home he'll never see again. Similarly, Anson's Gerry (for some reason played as an Englishman rather than the anticipated Welshman) is dashing and witty, but not the rake he can seem in more superficial readings.

I don't have the script at hand, but based on my recollection of other productions, I suspect Trout has made a few little cuts in the text. Whether she has or not, Live Theatre Workshop gives us exactly what we need from this play: a combination of warmth and yearning that is uniquely Irish.

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