Dancing at Lughnasa

By Brian Friel
Directed by Nora Hussey
At Ruth Nagel Jones Theater, Wellesley College, through June 26 1999
Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Nora Hussey is currently director of  theater studies at Wellesley.  Like her legendary predecessor Paul Barstow, Hussey has continued to work in the professional theatre while teaching.  She is now in the process of reviving Wellesley's Summer Theatre, with the intent of eventually turning it into a fully professional resident company.  This is the fourth such ambitious artistic alliance with a greater Boston college established by Artistic Directors in the last two years, and a hopeful sign that in this area at least, live theater is not to be allowed to dwindle away in favor of electronic spectacle.  Additionally, the Wellesley College history as an all-women's school means that a professional company in residence there would be in a good position to lead the way toward a theatre conscious of dealing with the concerns of the changing contemporary audience-- which is now 60% to 70% female in Boston, as in most cities.  If anyone can succeed in establishing such a ground-breaking company, it ought to be Hussey.  She's a wonderfully sensitive and prolific director, with an abiding interest  in new writing and in widening opportunities for women.  Area actors are usually eager to work with her because of her well earned reputation for nurturing and coaching actors into giving the very best performances they have in them.

Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" is in many ways an excellent choice for a paradigmatic Wellesley production.  It is an ensemble work, a "woman's play", and it draws on Hussey's strengths, in research and in production experience, for the detailed Irish background.  Indeed, Hussey has given Friel's darling script a lovely production.  The Ruth Nagel Jones theater is a low ceiling space, but Ken Loewit's lightly framed set  and sun drenched lighting lends it an air of spaciousness.  Sketchy bits of autumn brush on the periphery, fragrant cedar chips in the encircling yard, a flagstone wall and path, join each well worn and carefully chosen prop to imply the landscape and the culture. Delicate and nuanced, "Dancing" deserved the warm welcome it got from a sold out crowd made up mostly of young women.

"Dancing at Lughnasa" takes place in 1936.  A mile or three outside the Donegal town of Ballybeg,  five unmarried sisters keep house together in the family place they have inherited from their dead parents.  Three of them have jobs.  The oldest, Kate, is a schoolteacher.  Agnes and Rose-- who has body of a grown woman but is mentally a child-- knit woolen gloves which they sell to a dealer.  The other two, Chris and Maggie, keep house and look after Michael, Chris' young son. The sisters' lives together, while narrow, have satisfactions: each other, the beauty of the surroundings, and a secure place in the repressive Catholic community based in part on the prestige of their brother Jack, a missionary priest who has spent 25 years working with lepers in Africa.  Thanks to Father Jack, their standing in the community has been strong enough to survive even the disgrace of Michael: Chris' child was born out of wedlock, fathered by a handsome Welsh traveling salesman, Jerry Evans (Derek Nelson).  In spite of his sinful origin, the spinster sisters have lavished  maternal attention on young Michael, with enough overflow to use in protecting and indulging the childlike Rose.

The play is framed and narrated by the memory of this child Michael, grown to adulthood and trying to pin down the sweetness of this particular summer when he was seven; the last bright summer, the summer when everything changed.  The first change was that his sainted uncle Father Jack came home from Africa, and was discovered to be not a hero of the Faith, but a spoiled priest who had gone native and adopted the pagan beliefs of the people he worked among. The second change was that his father Jerry came to stay for a while, and young Michael got to know him, and believe in his salesman's promises and appreciate his dancer's prowess before the man went off again to fight in the Spanish Civil War (where a leg wound would put an end to his dancing.)

"Lughnasa" was written by a man, but it is in many ways what's recognized as a "woman's play".  The first and most noticeable way is that the script features meaty roles for four actresses in the age range where most of womankind exists but which but seldom appears on stage: between 35 and 55.  Secondly, it is a play in which "nothing happens" dramatically.  That is, what happens in the play happens as if it were a natural disaster. Contemporary dance music flickers in from the wireless radio to remind the women of pleasures and freedoms out of their reach.  Out on the back hills bonfires and pagan rites of dancing are available to the drunken "savages" whose short impoverished lives range untouched by duty and respectability. Past the midpoint of the first act the sisters cut loose and dance wildly to a traditional Irish jig that comes over the radio.  That moment of abandon not only happens too early to serve as the climax of an Aristotelian drama, but it is framed by the narrator's account of the child Michael's astonished fear at the liberated sight of it.  These wild whooping women were not the sisters he knew, the women who loved him and would care for him no matter what.  The daily women are not heroes: they do not see a choice.  For them what comes is merely loss, and the bearing of loss.

The quality of the acting at Wellesley is high, and as an ensemble the company built a credible world.  Ciaran Crawford's narration as Michael set the rhythmic standard-- the actor is Irish, and in this Irish-loving town has been able to go from one Irish author's script to another's, making each's particular verbal music.  Alicia Kahn was a complex and sensual Chris, most conflicted because most nearly involved with the forbidden.  In a sense, these two characters and Derek Nelson's Jerry had the easiest time of it: Crawford free of the technical challenge of an accent, and as narrator never required to be "in the moment"; Kahn and Nelson cast to age and type. James Butterfield as Father Jack was reassuringly mature and present-- but Father Jack may be too large and eccentric a character for the play that contains him, a character pitched to make an actor look good but not sufficient.  The others had a problem with age, being anywhere from one to two decades younger than the characters they portrayed.  I  was most impressed by Nicole Jesson as Maggie-- she made the role her own, and inhabited it so fully that preconceptions of how Maggie "ought" to be were irrelevant.  Lynn Moulton was most successful at "doing" age-- she has been since early on a character actress, and her Kate gave off the aura of one whose personal hopes were snuffed out long ago. Moulton, however, had her own point of difficulty-- the accent.  Agnes (Kate Connor) and Rose (Lian-Marie Holmes) came across as mere girls, and -- though poignant in their way-- their apparent youth meant that some of the darker tones of Friel's poignancy were never sounded.