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Dancing at Lughnasa.

When I was small my father's mother used to ask me the following riddle: "A man without eyes/Saw plums on a tree,/He neither took plums nor left plums--/Now how could this be?" The answer had to do with plurals: The man had on eye, so he was "without eye." There were two plums hanging on the tree, and he took one of them, therefore neither taking nor leaving "plums." My grandmother asked me many such riddles. I knew it was because she wanted to make me smart. I thought that the asking of such riddles had something to do with her being from Ireland.

In Brian Friel's splendid new play, Dancing at Lughnasa, now on stage at the Plymouth Theatre, it is Maggie Mundy, the hearty, adoring aunt of 7-year-old Michael, who poses an almost identical riddle. She tosses the child numerous other puzzles and brain-twisters as she feeds the chickens or makes the bread, never missing an opportunity to make him smarter. Aunt Kate, a school-teacher, treats Michael to a bedtime story every night, and aunts Rose and Agnes look up from their piecework jobs knitting gloves to smile out the window at him. Chris, the youngest Mundy sister and Michael's mother, modestly attempts to disguise her pride in the boy. But all five women take immense and evident pleasure in the child's existence. Their unfussy but comprehensive affections allow Michael to live that most enviable sort of childhood--a bright safe haven made of love and vigilance, yet one that allows him to stray at leisure along the roads of his own imagination.

All of the sisters are unmarried, living together in one small rural house near the fictional village of Ballybeg, Ireland. It is August of 1936. Recently the household has grown to include their Uncle Jack, a priest whose failing health is the ostensible reason for his return home after twenty-five years as a missionary in Uganda. In fact, his superiors have removed Jack because his Christian purpose has all but dissolved in his enthusiastic embrace of the ancient African beliefs his mission was meant to extirpate.

The other recent addition to the household is the Mundys' first radio, an unpredictable wireless set given to long silences, then sudden tempestuous bursts of music. Maggie wants to name the new set Lugh, after the Irish pre-Christmas god of the harvest (whose festival, Lughnasa, is being celebrated in the hills behind Ballybeg as the play opens.) But Kate objects to the pagan intrusion, so the set gets christened Marconi.

Still another person inhabits the outer edge of this family circle: the young Welshman Gerry, a not particularly successful traveling salesman and ballroom dance instructor, who also happens to be Michael's father. Gerry drifts unannounced to Ballybeg every year or so. Gerry is clearly less than a responsible dad. Indeed, Friel seems skeptical about whether men have much that is practical to contribute to the maintenance of community life: None of the male characters in Lughnasa do much to guarantee the material survival of the group.

It is precisely its loving, eloquent vindication of these women's contributions that makes Lughnasa a masterpiece of the most astonishing kind. It is hard to think of any play that has more explicitly honored women's work--manual, intellectual and spiritual--as the foundation upon which community survival is built. But Friel does not reduce their lives to a sum of noble drudgeries; all around their slow spirals of work are the felicities of song, joke and rhyme, the sharp, polished notes of opinion and dispute, the spice of anticipation.

In Lughnasa, dance emerges as a force both seductive and terrifying, and with as rich a multiplicity of forms and meanings as language itself. From the few seconds of Rose's and Maggie's music-hall kicks and flounces in the opening scene to the stunningly executed ballroom steps in kitchen and farmyard, dance outstrips the primacy of the word, "as if," says narrator Michael, "the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements." And then there is that astonishing moment when cosmic forces and the voice of the capricious radio converge in an instant, when ancient Irish dance bursts like a spark so intense that in a second the house seems devoured by flames, the five sisters whooping and stomping inside a conflagration powerful enough to consume all oxygen, and the audience must gasp for breath.

What Friel achieves in Dancing at Lughnasa owes everything to faith in the absolute authenticity of the home ground and that terrain's capacity to sustain the epic. It is also an intensely political play: To turn a sixties platitude upside down, Lughnasa demonstrates how the political ends up being personal. Ecclesiastical bigotry and large-scale industrial reorganization bring down the Mundy household virtually overnight. And within the scope of an impoverished family, it is the least powerful members who are the swiftest destroyed. Far away from the house in Ballybeg where Agnes and Rose knit their gray gloves, industrialists are putting in place the rational mechanisms of progress that will end such cottage industries--without guaranteeing employment for the displaced workers. This far-off decision lands on Agnes and Rose like a boulder flung out of heaven, a shock of such finality that recovery of their small place in the community is impossible, and the two disappear.

Director Patrick Mason allows the play's provocative ambiguities to blossom: the startling breadth of commentary made with the turn of a head or a heel in dance; the playfulness and generosity of changing partners; but also the grave and deep significance of a glance that lingers, or a kiss on a forehead. He catches and frames the hesitation in each character, as she or he hovers between stated belief and unarticulated desire.

Joe Vanek's magnificent stage design permits instant comprehension of the material conditions of the Mundy family's life: a kitchen containing little more than the bare necessities but graced with its inhabitants' personal touches--a bouquet of blossoms, a decorative piece of pottery. And right outside the door of these straitened circumstances is the gleaming extravagance of nature at harvest time: a field of dense gold hay studed with crimson poppies. Trevor Dawson's lighting fills both those golden fields and the Mundy kitchen with glorious west of Ireland late summer sun.

But most astonishing of all are the actors. Rosalen Linehan plays the law-enforcing Kate not as someone smug in her allegiance to the rules but as a survival-minded guardian intent on keeping her just-subsisting family from flying off the margin. Dearbhla Molloy's Maggie is more than the buoyant wise-cracker of the family; her talent for perennial cheer is an emblem of stamina, a weapon against any trace of fatalism, which could turn the family's daily struggle to collapse. Gerard McSorley moves with utter authority between the two Michaels, playing both the adult narrating his memories of home, and his own 7-year-old self. His is the crucial job of jarring the audience away from a stroll down the path of conditioned responses: He keeps them at a Brechtian distance, insisting that they penetrate this play with their brains as well as their hearts.

Robert Gwilyn plays Gerry with a wonderful physical grace--the Fred Astaire stance, the measured swing of hips and arms. Gwilym's Gerry is never merely an unctuous drifter living off his charm. He is both hopeful and fragile enough to be more fully human than the sum of his weaknesses. Donal Donnelly's magnificent vocal instrument provides the strayed missionary Jack with the exact coloration of astonishment, as he puts together tiny pieces of his past like an elderly Adam renaming everything in Eden after years of exile. To watch Donnelly's face flooded with immense relief as Jack recalls and enunciates exactly the word he needs--"ce-re-mo-ny!"--is to understand as if for the first time how the compromise of naming is what provides humans with that track upon which thoughts can cling and gain velocity.

Jack's effortless crossover into his African village's quotidian uses of enchantment demonstrates how spectacularly close to the surface of Irish life lies an ancient treasury of story and ritual. The same is true for Rose, played by Brid Ni Neachtain, whose mental handicap gives her a slippery grasp on the affairs of the organized world and makes her dependent upon the loving vigilance of Agnes. But beneath this fragil surface lies the authority of the primordial: When Ni Neachtain's Rose crosses the kitchen after a tryst, her face smeared with bilberry juice, her dignified insistence upon erotic entitlement banishes all notions of her as a charming simpleton.

Catherine Byrne's Mater Dolorosa beauty brings a numinous gravity to the role of Chris; a magnificent distractedness and a quelled but unquiet passion suffuse her character like perfume. Agnes could easily have been played as an erasure, a character with neither the household authority of Kate or Maggie, the elegant modds of Chris nor the quirkiness of Rose. But the meticulous physicality of Brid Brennan's flame-pure performance illuminates the absolute conviction and solidity of Agnes, who knows how small gestures and tender attentions keep vulnerable souls from perishing.

Postscript: According to the arrangement made with Actors' Equity, the Irish cast of Dancing at Lughnasa may continue to perform in his country only until March 1, after which a cast of American actors must replace them. Clearly there are times when this rule amounts to a kind of cultural protectionism. For actors to inhabit Lughnasa would require more than getting the accents right. Much of what this cast accomplishes arises, like the dances themselves, out of a deep, shared memory. We in the audience have been privileged to share not simply the convergence of great actors with great script, but the collective summoning-up of an ancient, common language of belief and ceremony squarely framed within the difficult timber of recent history.

Margaret Spillane is a writer and painter who lives in New Havenand reviews theater frequently for The Nation.
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Title Annotation:Plymouth Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut
Author:Spillane, Margaret
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Jan 27, 1992
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