Burning down the house

The dance and language in DTC's Dancing at Lughnasa are small fires burning bright

You must picture it first: five Irish sisters, single women in their 30s and 40s, tending assiduously to home and hearth in the small town of Ballybeg. Their only vice--and only an Irish Catholic could consider it such--is a wireless (a.k.a. radio) that plays "Irish dance music all the way from Dublin."

When the wireless works, which isn't very often, the sisters tap their feet and shake their heads a little. And in the signature scene of Dancing at Lughnasa, the women lose years of inhibition in one fell swoop.

It begins with Maggie, the mischievous workhorse with a discernible twinkle in her eye. With flour all over her hands, she starts the dance with a deep squat and guttural sounds as if she were giving birth in a field somewhere. As the music on the wireless builds, she spreads the flour all over her body and dances a primal dance in her long house dress, apron, and unlaced work boots. The other sisters--Aggie, Rose, Chris, and even Kate, the oldest and self-appointed matriarch, join in the spectacular, spontaneous dance.

Watching the dance is like watching a fire burn down the house. Each sister dances away an adulthood of intense labor, sacrifice, poverty, and loneliness. Each does it in her own inimitable style. (Rosie, the vulnerable, dull sister, dances a huge, celebratory stomp in her Wellingtons. Kate, the last to join in, gets up on the kitchen table and performs a vigorous, almost classical Irish step that lets one little lock of hair fall loose.) Together, they share a cathartic, ritualistic frenzy.

Until the wireless overheats. When the dance is over, there is no evidence that it was ever there. Or that it ever burned so brilliantly.

Holly Williams' choreography brings a lot to the Dallas Theater Center's production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. There's an authenticity to her dances--and an understanding of the importance of dance in the Irish psyche--whether the movement is internal and primal or a smooth ballroom waltz. And even though there isn't that much dancing in the play, the dances erupt like volcanoes, celebrations of a hidden sensuality and warmth of communion. Each dance defies a life of needlework and tea, a house in which joy is as scarce as eggs and meat.

Friel's work is a remembrance of things past. The acclaimed playwright spent his childhood summers with his mother's sisters in County Donegal, where this play is set. Dancing at Lughnasa captures the sisters shortly before their lives drift apart.

It is summer, during the Festival of Lughnasa. The summer breezes and fond memories of the festival dances fill their middle-aged hearts with longing. A few diversions save them from themselves: Chris (Elizabeth Heflin), a single mother, has brought her young son Michael (Kurt Rhoads, playing the character resembling the young Friel) to visit. And Jack (Edmund Coulter), their brother, has returned from his long life as a priest in Uganda. Coulter (last seen in DTC's Loot) is wonderfully appealing as Jack. He embodies the Irish tension between "pagan" rituals, like dancing, and the stern, scripted life of Catholicism. Slowly, it becomes clear to the sisters that Jack has abandoned his priestly ways and "gone native." He sounds more like Margaret Mead than a missionary, the way he describes the rituals and lifestyles of the people in his village.

Kate (Sheridan Thomas) makes it her mission to revitalize his Catholicism. But it is to no avail. Jack's eccentric spirituality, a fusion of Christianity and the native religion of the Ugandans, makes him a complete outcast in Ballybeg. And in the end, the sisters pay the price for it.

It may not be intentional, but Dancing at Lughnasa is also about the institutionalized misogyny of Irish life in the '30s, and later. It was an accepted, and acceptable, destiny that women gave their lives to fathers, brothers, and the ancestral home. None of my grandmother's sisters, for instance, ever married or pursued a career. They lived in a rose-covered cottage in a small town doting on their father and then their brothers, one a priest, of course, and the other a doctor. As in Dancing at Lughnasa, one sister worked outside the home to support the others. When I went to visit Aunt Sheila in 1984, she was the only one left, cleaning, doing needlework, and walking the hill to daily mass. But she spent a lot of time quietly looking out at the sea, as if wondering what might have been.

I do have some problems with Dancing at Lughnasa. Kurt Rhoads is uneven as the narrator and the small boy. It is of course difficult for a man to play the voice of a child as he stands behind the action. But too often Rhoads is just flat, as if he's in the narrating mode when he's supposed to play a withdrawn, confused little boy. I am not a big fan of narration, anyway, and a lot of Lughnasa is caught up in it. Both the first and second acts end with a long narration. It is beautifully spoken and reveals the intriguing, tragic course of the characters' lives (interestingly, their fate is revealed at the end of the first act, and for the viewer, the second act is suffused with that sad knowledge). Still, I felt cheated. I would've liked the play to end with action, or even better, dancing to the wireless.

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