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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Radiant Production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa


Also see Richard's review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Woods for the Trees

The Pacific Alliance Stage Company is presenting Brian Friel's Tony winning play Dancing at Lughnasa at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park. Hector Correa one of the Bay Area's finest actors is now the Artistic Director of the company and he does a fine job of directing the distinguished players in this complex play.

I first saw this memory play at the Garrick Theatre in London in 1989 with the Abbey Theatre Players. The noted Abbey Theatre actress Rosaleen Lineham played Kate and Alec McCowen played Father Jack. A young Stephen Dillane played Garry. The play brought back memories since I was basically raised by three maiden Irish aunts. If they had seen the play there would have said "'tis a darlin' show" and I would agree.

The American premiere occurred in October 1991 at the Plymouth Theatre where it won the Tony for the Best Drama of the year. I saw the play again with Ms. Lineham repeating the role and I enjoyed it a second time. The play ran 421 performances. The Irish Film board filmed the play in 1998 with Meryl Streep playing Kate and Michael Gambon playing Father Jack. Since the New York run, almost every major regional theater in this country and the UK has presented it to their audiences. The drama needs fine, talented actresses who can sport true Irish west county accents, and this company has such fine actresses playing the roles. Everyone in the cast is superb.

Dancing at Lughnasa opens with Michael (Craig Mason), the illegitimate child of one of the five Mundy sisters Chris (Elana Kepner), remembering the summer of 1936 when he was six. The sisters and their brother Father Jack (George Maquire) live in a small cottage about two miles outside of Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland. Uncle Jack, an Irish priest who has gone "native" has just come back after spending 25 years as a missionary nursing the lepers in Uganda. Jack now has a strong affection for the African culture and he no longer believes in Catholicism. His prudish sister Kate (Phoebe Moyer), a strong Catholic school teacher, is now trying to guide the ostracized priest back to the "true faith." The mousy sister Agnes (Tamar Cohn) makes lovely lace women's gloves for the area, Maggie (Deborah Black) is the housekeeping sister who is always happy and singing, and Rose (Shannon Veon Kase) is the simple-minded sister. Michael father's Gerry Evans (Michael Smith), a bragger Welshman, drops by occasionally when he is in the neighborhood. He promises them the moon but the promises always go unfulfilled.

Dancing at Lughnasa is about hot blooded Celtic paganism with the ordered insulated Catholic world of rural Ireland. The title refers to a pagan ritual left over from the old days when the Celts honored the god Lugh. The hill people still burn bonfires of Lughnasa each year where they dance around the fire. On this particular summer a boy has been painfully burnt and this symbolically happens to the Mundy family at the end of the two and one half hour lyrical play.

Lughnasa's lilting Irish language gently flows from the mouths of the cast. There are no long monologues or tracts on religion, and you get the idea that the playwright is more in line with the pagan instincts of the family rather then the rigid formality of the Irish Catholic faith of 1936. There is imagery and subtleness in the language of the cast. This is a brilliant piece of writing that brings back vivid memories of my childhood.

Hector Correa's brilliantly talented ensemble gives sterling performances with true to life west county accents. Phoebe Moyer gives a stand out performance as Kate. She is supposed to be the villain of the piece, but she is a sympathetic disciplinarian. George Maguire returns to the stage after five years of directing plays at Solano College/Harbor Theatre Center and is an excellent Father Jack. His solo scene in the second act describing the rites of an African pagan ritual is a brilliant piece of acting. He traces a very believable trajectory as the elder brother. Craig Mason as the elder Michael and narrator gives monologues that are magnificently affecting. Deborah Black as Maggie is a bundle of joy dancing and singing about the stage. She radiates happiness from her manner and voice. Tamar Cohn as the quiet sister Agnes is excellent as she displays hidden passion, especially around Chris's lover. Shannon Veon Kase as the mildly retarded Rose gives a sweet performance. Michael Smith is wonderful as the charming, usually-absent Gerry. He believes he can do great things but these desires are never fulfilled. His Dylan Thomas Welsh accent is a delight.

Dancing at Lughnasa closed Sunday at Spreckels Performing Art Center, Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park.

The Pacific Alliance's next production is Forever Plaid which opens on May 6 and runs thru May 23. These tickets can be obtained at 707-588-3434.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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