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Dancing at Lughnasa

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Change is a part of life that can be escaped no easier than death or taxes. Brian Friel's 1990 play, Dancing At Lughnasa deals with the tides of change in a number of ways - the old world versus the new, the old versus the young, the familiar versus the different. All of these and more come to the surface in the charming new production of the play at the T. Schreiber Studio.

Director Mary Boyer has somehow managed to fit a tiny cottage Ireland and the eight people who bring it to life into the Gloria Maddox Theatre's tiny playing space, while not forsaking the vast open beauty of the Irish countryside. That she is also the set designer is no surprise; she has combined the confined and the infinite as easy as she has directed the audience to be a part of the set, acting as both a boundary and observer to the world of 1936 Donegal.

The play, based more or less on Friel's own life, is narrated by Michael (Jason McCool), who was seven at the time of the story. He was the sole male living in a the house with his mother (Adrea Fletcher) and her four sisters (Mary Beth Kowalski, Ann Burrows, Elizabeth Anne Quincy, and Kathleen Fisher) until his Uncle Jack (Robert Olsen) returned from treating lepers in Africa, unfamiliar with his native English language and unable to easily regain his previous life.

But more than the return of either his uncle or his long-absent father (Fred Rueck), the defining event of the summer of 1936 was the Marconi radio that found their way into their home, providing the first real glimpse of the world outside Donegal. The radio provided music, joy, and freedom, but with the terrible price of never being able to return to the way things were before.

Friel spins a warm, heartfelt story in a refreshingly simple and honest way. Boyer interprets his words with great care, finding plenty of colors in his richly atmospheric writing, and clearly defining the characters of the sisters. In her hands, the play's most important moments are pointed up with care and passion, the most striking being the dance in which all five sisters take part. To the tunes spinning from the radio, each is dancing individually, yet displaying the bonds that tie them - and their very way of life - together.

Boyer has found five great women to embody the sisters, and their dedication to the material and powerful chemistry with each other truly drives the play. If one complaint is to be made about their performances, it's that the all seem too young, possessing an energy that the older, harder women they are defined as might not possess. But that's a small gripe - they do everything else right, time and time again.

McCool is fine as Michael and Rueck's Gerry can charm you as easily as Chris, but Olsen's Uncle Jack is lacking. As he presents his problems, they're too affected - and therefore less affecting - than the others'. His portrayal of the old, forgetful man has too great a tendency toward the stereotypical.

Luckily, Olsen is the production's only true weak link; Boyer and her company have done well avoiding that everywhere else. That helps make this production of Dancing at Lughnasa every bit as funny, moving, and relevant as it needs to be.

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T. Schreiber Studio
Dancing at Lughnasa
Through June 9
Gloria Maddox Theatre, 151 West 26th Street, 7th Floor
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 741-0265