Brian Friel’s award-winning Dancing at Lughnasa is a delicate memory play, a portrait of an Irish family poor in material things but rich in love. Like a treasured scrapbook photograph come to life, the warm-hearted drama paints a portrait of grown siblings unknowingly approaching the moment when their family would break apart.
The final play of the season at Palm Beach Dramaworks, Dancing at Lughnasa is bittersweet, tender and altogether beguiling.
Set near the fictional village of Ballybeg in 1936, the play gently examines the lives of the five Mundy sisters and their older brother Jack (John Leonard Thompson), an ailing Catholic priest who has come home after 25 years as a missionary in a Ugandan leper colony. Michael Evans (Declan Mooney), the grown son of youngest sister Chris (Gretchen Porro), narrates the story, which unfolds during a fateful August when he was just a happy little boy surrounded by love.
Modeled on playwright Friel’s mother and four of her six sisters, the Mundy women are distinctively drawn.
Chris, who bore Michael after falling for Welsh traveling salesman Gerry Evans (Cliff Burgess), is still beguiled by her unreliable, apt-to-vanish beau. Kate (Julie Rowe), the eldest sister, is a devout Catholic and a teacher who provides the bulk of the family’s meager income. Maggie (Mehan Moroney) is the clan’s cook and housekeeper, a spirited woman who likes a smoke and a galloping turn around the kitchen. Agnes (Margery Lowe) is a quiet sort who also fancies Gerry’s silver-tongued charm. Rose (Erin Joy Schmidt) is developmentally disabled, yet she’s a woman brimming with life and longing for a love of her own.
Beautifully staged by J. Barry Lewis and engagingly acted by its uniformly strong cast, Dancing at Lughnasa is a character study that probes dreams and disappointments, familial loyalty and risk-taking, and the tension between proscribed behavior and a free-spirited approach to life. Though the play is set so many decades ago, Kate’s fears about how the family will get by if she loses her job feel all too resonant in these new hard times.
The dancing in Lughnasa is choreographed by Lynette Barkley, who makes the movement reflective of each character. Moroney’s Maggie is a solid woman, but she’s light on her feet and something of a wild instigator. Burgess’ Gerry is a kind of con man Fred Astaire, slick as a former ballroom dance teacher would be, passionate as he twirls Chris, the woman he will always love and leave. Lowe’s tiny, shy Agnes becomes Ginger Rogers to Gerry’s Astaire, moving with the beautiful grace of the leading lady she’ll never be.
The production elements -- Jeff Modereger’s rustic set, Brian O’Keefe’s period costumes, Ron Burns’ lovely lighting, Steve Shapiro’s artful sound design -- are just-right expressions of the world Friel summons. Altogether, Dancing at Lughnasa is a lovely end to a strong season.