Yesterday, I saw Dancing at Lughnasa for the first time at San Juan College’s Little Theatre. The play was written by Brian Friel and directed by Daniel Sullivan. Dancing at Lughnasa premiered in Dublin in 1990 and won the Tony Award in 1992.
This was a poignant, innovative production.
Dancing at Lughnasa is about a man’s (Michael’s) memories of living with his mother, aunts, and their uncle in the fictional Irish town of Ballybeg in Donegal during the Lughnasa festival in 1936, when he was seven years old. Michael narrates the play and often tells what happens to the characters in the distant future beyond the events of the play, building the audience’s sympathy and empathy for the characters. In the course of the play, the mother and aunts discuss not only the hardships they face, but they also argue about celebrating the pagan festival of Lughnasa in the area, because they are Catholic and the family matriarch disagrees with the idea of attending a pagan festival. Strengthening this pagan vs. Christianity undertone is the recent return of the family’s uncle Jack from Uganda, where he has been serving as a missionary, but has picked up an admiration for the pagan festivals he encountered there. The family eventually begins to wonder if the actual reason for Jack’s return is not for the reasons he gives, but perhaps because the Church did not tolerate his enthusiasm of the pagan ways. Another underlying theme is the return of Michael’s father, who left Michael’s mother years ago, but returns briefly for a visit before heading off to fight in the Spanish Civil War solely as an adventure. The “Dancing” comes into the play when Michael’s mother and aunts dance whenever their broken radio manages to play music on occasion. To me, the dancing seems to symbolize their enthusiastic attempts to enjoy life in the face of change, hard times,
and hard times to come in the future that they cannot foresee. In his narration, Michael reflects wistfully on all this and on what happens to his relatives in the future connecting with the audience in a very moving way.
I spoke briefly with the director, Daniel Sullivan, after the performance was over and found that one of my favorite facets of the performance was his idea. In the original play, the narrator, Michael, stands to one side and narrates the events. Mr. Sullivan’s innovation was to have Michael move among the characters during the course of the play and out through the audience as he gives his final, beautiful soliloquy. This captures the audience’s attention and helps involve them more in the performance establishing a tighter connection than would have been possible with Michael simply standing at the side.
I am considering seeing this play again just to study its subtleties in script and performance.
I strongly recommend seeing this play to anyone with an interest in theatre.
Dancing at Lughnasa continues at the Little Theatre on March 3, 8, 9, and 10 at 7:00 p.m. and at 2:00 p.m. on March 11.