There is so much to Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, it's a pity there isn't more. The Denver Center Theatre Company production is so rich in character, so well acted, so humane, so involving, it is difficult to say why it also just misses being completely satisfying.
But then, the play reflects ordinary day-to-day human experience--which is never wholly satisfying. The predictable construct goes: He was born, he suffered, he died. The whole point of the arts, it seems, is to subvert such conventional thinking and find a key to meaning. Lughnasa doesn't go that far, though the writing is so good, one keeps expecting it to. In the end, the playwright does not grasp the meaning of these peoples' lives.
But what Friel and this excellent production do accomplish is significant: articulate the simultaneous need for order in the face of emotional and physical chaos and the need to rebel against that artificial order. Nature is not easily contained.
The five sisters of the Mundy family, ranging from their late twenties well into middle-age, live together in genteel poverty just outside a small Irish village. The oldest sister, Kate, dominates the others with a strict, pleasure-denying Catholicism, and the younger women rebel in various ways.
Yet Kate is more than she appears to be. And the sensitivity of Friel's writing is nowhere better expressed than in this character, the most misunderstood of the sisters. Kate is using religion to try to hold her disintegrating family together. She sees the "hairline cracks" under her fingertips, not realizing that the tighter she holds on, the more surely the family will slip away.
The story is told as a memory play: Michael, the grown son of youngest sister Chris, recalls his mother and his aunts and the complex composition of his family. His uncle, a priest who is the eldest sibling, has returned from 25 years of missionary work in Africa. Father Jack's calling had conferred whatever little prestige the family had enjoyed until his return. It becomes painfully obvious why the priest has lost his vocation; he has not so much lost his faith as he has changed it, embracing the religion of people he was sent to convert. Into this mess enters Michael's irresponsible father, Gerry. He's good for nothing but dancing, but despite their anger, the sisters respond to his sexual energy and his grace.
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The opposing forces in the play suck the sisters down like so much tar. Nothing, not even their own ecstatic dancing in honor of Lughnasa, a traditional Irish harvest festival, can save the family from falling apart. Michael's rhapsodic ode to the dance seems grotesquely inadequate to the task at hand. Friel's embrace of what Kate calls "paganism" is as empty in the end as her oppressive and dark Catholicism.
Jamie Horton's narration as Michael is strong, calming and poignant. Pamela Nyberg's Kate involves us in the character's fragility and fearful discipline. Kathleen M. Brady makes big Maggie the wholesome heart of the production with an inventive, hilarious performance. Robynn Rodriguez gives Agnes an intelligence and tenderness that makes us ache for her frustration and loneliness. Jacqueline Antaramian's delicate, dim Rose is so full of sweet surprises, and so perfectly balanced against Rodriguez's intelligence, that the two form a pocket of intimacy indispensable to the meaning of the play.
Katherine Heasley's Chris is bright, lovely and just a little mean-spirited. John Hutton's foolish Gerry seems a bit exaggerated at first because Hutton projects intelligence as an actor. But he also makes grace and mindless sexuality real in the character. Finally, Tony Church is brilliant as the afflicted Father Jack, revealing in infinitesimal increments the real man within the troubled mind.
Every performance is locked into the others like the pieces of a puzzle. The women create authentic family feeling into which the men intrude and finally fit. The play may not completely satisfy, but the production offers the best ensemble performance I have ever seen at the DCTC--a kind of dance in itself.