You have to hand it to the Irish: they can tell a compelling story without telling you much at all.
It isn’t because of efficiency or conciseness, rather unabashed vagueness. In keeping with the best storytelling traditions, Irish plays, at the very least, convey enough mood to remind you of your own familiar world, and enough exactness to remind you that this is still a story. You enter and exit the picture fluidly, never sure of whose emotions you’re responding to. In the end, you feel awoken from a dream, in the hazy déjà vu of it all. How exquisite this can be.
In Brian Friel’s beloved drama, “Dancing at Lughnasa,” now at the Irish Classical Theatre, we’re swept away in the tragic blandness of the Mundy family. Kate, the eldest sister of five and matriarch of the sisters’ home, is a tight-lipped schoolteacher – the epitome of Irish Catholic. Her siblings are decidedly less tame than she; for instance, they enjoy things like music and laughter, while Kate couldn’t be bothered by such distractions.
What else comes of this feeling is almost beside the point. Our takeaway is the value of memories; the lessons learned from difficult, loving relationships between disparate family members, sisters so wound in their own narratives that they can’t trust any next step. The details of their day-to-day actions are less important here, and that’s OK.
Wendy Hall plays Kate with a well-spun tightness, the depths of which are riveting. Hall manages to keep Kate consistent when necessary – church is her home; her house is merely a residence – but when navigating unpaved roads, she goes wholeheartedly. It is a fantastic performance.
The youngest Mundy, Rose, is of apparent mental disadvantage, though her condition is never discussed. Elizabeth Oddy defines the many layers in this beautiful character. Rose is young, but not naïve. She is limited, but not fearless. She is determined, but not willing to sacrifice common sense – all the things wise, educated Kate is not.
Oddy explores Rose in every line, and we’re lucky enough to follow her along. She never exploits Rose’s mental limitations to play for our sympathy. Instead, she employs a physicality that is always present but never exclusive. This is a complete characterization, a fine job.
The same can be said of Beth Donohue’s Maggie, the housekeeper of the residence and comic relief. Maggie is the entertainer, the fun sister who know how to light a cigarette and who can turn any awkwardness into a well-placed punch line. Donohue gives Maggie’s comedy a desperation that feels right in this oppressive little home. When she must cook three eggs for seven eaters, she makes a joke out of it surely to conceal the fact that her stomach is shriveling. We see glimpses of that pain but never a sob story.
Agnes, or Aggie, played by Katie White, fills the necessary role of dry-witted, corner-sitting commentator. Aggie is Rose’s caretaker and their relationship is worth noticing.
Consistent here are performances with great restraint, but a visible, audible eagerness to crash through into life’s next phases. Where, for the most part, these are loving, supportive sisters, it is a great dynamic to see; the complications within are not immediately available to us, but they’re there. We just need to pay attention.
Andrea Gollhardt’s Chris, short for Christine, is an anomaly in this group. Her stage presence is indisputable but her take on Chris is confusing. Gollhardt lacks a central line in her impressionable Chris. She doesn’t have a place from which she can be led stray, or to which she is drawn. Her interaction with Gerry (Thomas LaChiusa), father to her love child, is unsure and undefined.
Some of this may be Friel’s doing. His pacing of narration – Chris’s grown-up son Michael, played with endearing pathos by Chris Kelly – against scenes is sometimes odd. Some of Michael’s narrations, especially where character epilogues are spelled out and reflective hindsight offers perspective, are confusingly placed. Friel also overwrites his monologues, often at the expense of his core characters’ exposition. It’s poetic and beautiful, truly, but also overwrought and laborious.
Director Derek Campbell could have tightened some of this up, especially in the long-playing first act. Gerry Maher, ever the endearing, bumbling storyteller, adds a few minutes to the act with his long-winded gestures as the aging priest Jack, though some of this is Friel’s own rambling.
But again: the big picture. It all serves a purpose, an understanding of memory and personal narratives, the preciousness of both and the need to reignite those that matter most. Like Michael tells us, poignantly from his pulpit, “atmosphere is more real than incident.”
Ain’t that the truth.