Monday, February 18th, 2019

Dancing at Lughnasa: It was a performance that would have made Friel proud

Abigail Johnson-Ruscansky | The Free Press

Posted on October 06, 2015 in Arts & Culture, Theatre
By USM Free Press

By Dora Thompson

A solemn air was cast over the opening night of Portland Stage Company’s Dancing at Lughnasa. On Friday, October 2nd, playwright Brian Friel passed away in his home in Greencastle, County Donegal, Ireland. He was 86. Considered one of the greatest English speaking playwrights of his time and beloved by many, Friel’s work is not over. Directed by Sally Wood, The Portland Stage’s production of Dancing at Lughnasa is far from the last.

The audience started the play with a sober respect for the playwrights passing, but couldn’t help but erupt in laughter and gasps as his work unfolded before them. At the end of the performance, the audience cheered in a long lasting standing ovation.

Francis Mcgrath, an English professor at USM, specializes in 19th and 20th Century British and Irish literature and theory. He also specializes in the works of Brian Friel.

“I often teach Friel’s plays in my courses, as he comes from where my research takes place in. He writes about social growing pains that Ireland’s had over the 20th century,” said Mcgrath.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play that follows five unmarried sisters in rural Ireland during the Lughnasa harvest festival. It is told through the eyes of the illegitimate child of one of the sisters, Michael Evans, played by Tony Reilly after he is old. Reilly performed a convincing character transferring between playing a seven year old boy, to long, thoughtful adult monologues.

He controls the eb and the flow of the play, perhaps exaggerating real world happenings. Evans tells the audience the dismal future of the characters early, yet it doesn’t affect audiences being swept away with sheer joy at the sister’s antics. Each with a distinct and shining personality, backed by their ex-Christian uncle Jack, it is impossible to not find yourself in one of these characters.

Dancing at Lughnasa has a lot of social and cultural dynamics. It represents a key transition of Irish culture in the 1930’s,” said Mcgrath.

The play touches upon issues such as the rise of technology, the loss of jobs due to more factories and the growing tensions between Catholic and Pagan traditions in Ireland. It also delves into more personal issues like love, family, desire, and duty. And it was all backed by Executive and Artistic Director Anita Stewart’s enchanting set. A giant moon rises up and down in the background, fronted by charming and simple cottage set.

Juilliard graduate Julie Jesneck played Chris, the mother of Michael Evans. She did a highly relatable job at portraying a wistful, young mother. Senile Uncle Jack, played brilliantly by Paul Haley offered subtle comic relief. Aunt Maggie, played by the lively Tod Randolph, offered not-so-subtle comic relief. The iconic dancing scene was  magnificently done, and left the audience clapping and flushed. Each actor showed their character through their distinct style of dance.

In the words of Michael Evans, “Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement- as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness.”

It was a performance that Friel would have been proud of.

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