Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Dancing at Lughnasa
Arden Theatre Company

(l-r) Megan Bellwoar, Mary McCool, Suzanne O'Donnell and Jennifer Childs
More than a decade after its Broadway debut, Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa remains a powerful discourse on progress, tradition, and the bonds of family. It's a play that takes place in the narrator's memory, and in the final scene, that narrator points out that much of his memory of the era being depicted depends on "atmosphere more than fact." It's appropriate, then, that director Aaron Posner has created a cozy, heartfelt atmosphere in his new production at the Arden Theatre. Posner's ensemble feels very much like a real family, and it's one of the reasons this Dancing at Lughnasa works so well.

Dancing at Lughnasa tells the story of the five Mundy sisters of County Donegal, Ireland at a crucial time in 1936. Still living together in their thirties, the sisters are getting ready for the Lughnasa festival - the beginning of the harvest. The oldest sister, practical, sensible Kate, won't allow her younger siblings to attend the harvest dance, saying there are more pressing things to worry about. For starters, there's the arrival of their much older brother Jack, a Catholic priest who has returned home after 25 years ministering to a leper colony in Uganda. Jack was sent home due to fears that he'd "gone native" - and sure enough, he seems more affectionate toward Ugandan lifestyle and faith than his own. When he learns that sister Christina has a seven-year-old son, born out of wedlock, he's surprisingly happy, explaining how a "love child" is a point of pride in Uganda. He makes parallels between Ireland's pagan traditions (including the Lughnasa festival itself) and those of Uganda - parallels that offend the upright Kate.

As Father Jack's memory starts to fail him, he finds that he's spent so many years speaking Swahili that he can't remember basic English words. Kate, meanwhile, is upset at the arrival of a radio in the house and the importance that her carefree sister Maggie gives to it ("If she knew her prayers half as well as those old pagan songs..."). And Gerry Evans, the ne'er-do-well father of Christina's young son Michael, makes his way back into Chris' life bragging that he earns money by teaching dancing and selling gramophones ("This country is gramophone-crazy!"). As the adult Michael points out in the play's closing moments, music - and the dancing that is the sisters' favorite release - had become as important to the family as language as a method of communicating.

There's not much action in Dancing at Lughnasa, unless you consider hanging a radio antenna in a sycamore tree exciting. But it's the simplicity and the routine of these sisters' lives, as it slowly comes undone, that provides much of the drama. As their lives begin to change - due to the arrival of things like radio and factories - we begin to see that some traditions cannot be held onto, even when they hold a family together.

The Arden's cast holds the play together impressively. The strongest performances come from Megan Bellwoar, fierce yet vulnerable as Kate, and Russell Leib, who captures all the humor and poignancy of Father Jack. (Not coincidentally, they also have the most convincing brogues.) There's also excellent work from Grace Gonglewski as the sassy Maggie and from Mary McCool as the warmhearted Chris, plus a nicely underplayed turn by Suzanne O'Donnell as the reserved Agnes. As Rose, the "simple" sister, Jennifer Childs sometimes seems too affected, but ends up making her pursuit of an impossible romance in act two quite touching.

Scott Barrow makes the most he can of his unlikable character, Michael's vagabond father, who charms Chris but not her sisters. (I'm with the sisters.) And as the adult Michael, narrating the action from his memory, Anthony Lawton wanders the stage with a forlorn expression. His character seems to intrude on the action more than complement it.

The lack of action in Dancing at Lughnasa can be frustrating at times; the drama in the Mundys' lives is fascinating, but rarely exhilarating. There are moments when the sisters seem so reserved that it would be a relief if they would just get up and do something (besides stepdancing, which they do wonderfully). And when Michael reveals at the end what fates befell the sisters, one wishes that playwright Friel had dramatized this compelling part of the story rather than just describing it.

Still, Dancing at Lughnasa remains an affecting story of dreams deferred and unfulfilled, and the Arden's production strikes just the right affectionate, nostalgic tone. Even the set design by Lewis Folden seems more based on "atmosphere than fact"; the walls of the Mundys' cottage seem solid in the middle but fade out at the edges, seeming to become part of the cloudy Donegal sky. It's a charming detail that fits this lovely production perfectly.

Dancing at Lughnasa runs through April 2 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Post-show discussions are scheduled on Thursday, March 16; Wednesday, March 22; and Sunday, March 26. Ticket prices range from $27 to $45 and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215.922.1122, online at or in person at the box office.

Dancing at Lughnasa
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Aaron Posner
Scenic Design... Lewis Folden
Costume Design... Alison Roberts
Lighting Design... John Stephen Hoey
Sound Design... Karin Graybash

Gerry... Scott Barrow
Date... Megan Bellwoar
Rose... Jennifer Childs
Maggie... Grace Gonglewski
Michael... Anthony Lawton
Father Jack... Russell Leib
Chris... Mary McCool
Agnes... Suzanne O'Donnell

Photo: Mark Garvin

-- Tim Dunleavy

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