Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, April 22, 2018

LughnasaFrom left, Orlagh Cassidy (Kate), Rachel Pickup (Agnes), Aedin Moloney (Rose) and Annabel Hagg (Chris) in the 20th anniversary production of Brian Friel’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’at Irish Repertory Theatre (132 W. 22nd St.), directed by Charlotte Moore. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

 

NEW YORK – Irish playwright Brian Friel turns 83 in a few weeks, and Charlotte Moore, the artistic director of the Irish Repertory Company, is giving him an early birthday present with an exhilarating revival of one of his masterworks, "Dancing at Lughnasa," which won the Tony for best play in 1991.

Ever since 1966, when Friel made his auspicious New York theater debut with what’s still his most popular play, "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" – about a young Irishman leaving family and hearth to emigrate to the United States – he has been the most frequently produced modern Irish playwright to grace our stages. Over the past 45 years, he has displayed an artistry of rueful beauty, quiet humor, and wisdom and wonder in an amazing series of fine plays.

When Friel first arrived on the scene, he was the voice of a new generation of Irish writers, a different voice from such old guard, remarkable playwrights as John Millington Synge who, in "The Playboy of the Western World," wrote one of the great comedies of the English language, and in his "Riders to the Sea," wrote one of the few plays of the 20th century that suggest the grandeur of Greek tragedy.

Another, Sean O’Casey, the Dublin bricklayer, wrote two towering classics of Irish drama, "Juno and the Paycock," and "The Plough and the Stars." There have been other, lesser writers with a flair for the stage, some hotly contentious, scornful of one another; men and a smattering of women like Lady Gregory, a co-founder of the Abbey Theater with W. B. Yeats, and the recently rediscovered playwright Teresa Deevy. They were all writers of many views – all fiercely held and vehemently argued – wonderfully witty, with a deep fondness for language.

Like O’Casey, most of them wrote only one or two major plays. Paul Vincent Carroll tried but could never match his best work, "Shadow and Substance." The late Brendan Behan might have created a substantial body of work and have been a contender along with Friel, but his rapacious lifestyle did him in at age 41, with only one notable play to his name, "The Hostage."

Friel, whose tally to date hovers around 30 plays, is neither a boisterous writer like Behan nor an angry one like O’Casey, but he does share their easy, rolling fluency of language and the obvious joy of words that all the best of his compatriots have, and a good deal of their humor, too.

His works are written to be heard as well as seen and "Dancing at Lughnasa" is no exception; it is a memory play in the tradition of Tennessee Williams’s "The Glass Menagerie" and Thornton Wilder’s "Our Town," yet, like most of Friel’s best work, it echoes the serious comic genius of Anton Chekhov, filtered through Friel’s thoroughly original Irish sensibility.

The time of "Dancing at Lughnasa" is the summer of 1936; the place is Ballybeg, a town invented by Friel, in County Donegal, Ireland. Michael (Ciaran O’Reilly), the grown-up son of one of the five unmarried Mundy sisters, Chris (Annabel Hagg), serves as the playwright’s narrator and tells us of his recollections of those late summer days when the family got its first battery-operated radio, a Marconi, and of the return home of his uncle, Father Jack (Michael Countryman) who’d spent 25 years as a missionary in an African leper colony. He also tells us that it was a significant summer for Michael because of the two visits from his father Gerry Evans (Kevin Collins).

It was also the beginning of a time of great change for Ireland, when the country was shifting from an agrarian society to one that welcomed industry. For rural people like the Mundy sisters, this reordering would be devastating, altering their lives forever. Though "Dancing at Lughnasa" is good-humored much of the time and oddly comical from moment to moment in scene after scene, Friel’s struggling family seems to serve as microcosm of a country trying to come to terms with a new world. The only time the sisters let pent-up emotion fly is when Celtic music comes on the radio. Led by the eldest sister Kate (Orlagh Cassidy), they all participate in a frantic, stomping Irish jig. The play’s title refers to the ancient god of harvest "Lugh" and a time when backwoods Irish folk would celebrate the end of summer with bonfires and dancing.

Ms. Moore has assembled a first-rate cast that seems more like a real family than a stage family and has woven the tapestry of Friel’s drama into a production of singular beauty.

"Dancing at Lughnasa" is playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St. between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, through Jan. 15. For more information, call (212) 727-2737 or go to irishrep.org.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment