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A CurtainUp Review
Dancing at Lughnasa

And so, when I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936, different kinds of memories offer themselves to me. . .what fascinates me about that memory is that it owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.
 Dancing at Lughnasa
, l-r: Rachel Pickup (Agnes), Aedin Moloney (Rose) and Annabel Hagg (Chris) in the 20th anniversary production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa
(Photo by Carol Rosegg.)
What better place to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Brian Friel's 1991 Tony award winning Dancing at Lughnasa than The Irish Rep Theater, one of New York's greatest small treasures. where all things Irish have thrived for almost a quarter century? Helmed by artistic director Charlotte Moore, it's a lovely production of Friel's music infused memory play.

The eight-member cast splendidly portray the richly drawn characters. The company's co-founder and producing director Ciaran O'Reilly lends his lilting voice to the role of Michael, the adult narrator who also speaks the dialogue of his 7-year-old self during the end of a summer that, per the quote above, are etched into his memory more in terms of atmosphere than factual incidents.

The year is 1936, on the eve of the celebration of the Harvest God, Lugh where we meet the Mundy family in its modest home (recreated with loving attention to detail by Antje Ellerman and evocatively lit by Richard Plbrow and Michael Gottlieb). As our narrator moves to the front of the stage, the rest of the ensemble quietly take their place in the background of the modest modest Irish cottage in Ballybeg.

The five unmarried Mundy sister' household revolves around Michael the youngest sister Chrissie's (Annabel Hãgg) love-child; also the older brother Jack (a riveting Michael Countryman), a priest recently returned ill with malarial fever after 25 years serving in a Ugandan leper colony. Though back in the place where he became a traditional priest, even assuming he's delusional from his illness, his strange and enthusiastic tales of African rituals indicate that he's gone native.

As written by Friel we get a clear portrait of each sister's personality. Schoolteacher Kate (Orlagh Cassidy is a standout as the dour and straight-laced yet likeable head of the family) is the only conventional job holder. She's clearly the the head of the family, less ready to joke though she too is obviously fond of young Michael. Not that the other sisters aren't also hard working: The plain and quiet Agnes (Rachel Pickup who manages to convey that plainness even though she's quite lovely) and the somewhat dim-witted, naive Rose (an extremely touching Aedin Moloney) work at home knitting gloves. The always ready with a joke Maggie (played with gusto by Jo Kinsella) is in charge of the kitchen.

The prettiest youngest sister Chrissie (Annabel Hägg excellent as the doomed romantic) who still believes that she will have a future with Michael's father the handsome Welsh gramophone salesman Gerry (a dapper Kevin Collins), the only non-familial character who can dances like Fred Astaire but is incapable of fidelity. While costumers Linda Fisher and Jessica Barros have kept the stay-at-home sisters in plain dresses with coveralls and workman's boots and Kate in a prim teacher's suit, they've gone all out putting Gerry in a snazzy true to the 1930's suit and dashing straw hat, as well as for brother Jack's outfits to go with his more fanciful speeches.

As the love child is a source of joy as much as scandal for the family so the only source of musical diversion in their hardscrabble lives is the radio. This is exhilaratingly dramatized when music sets off wild and wonderfully abandoned dance vividly choreographed by Barry McNabb. The irresistible power of the music is underscored when even the restrained Kate joins in..

As that radio is a source of joy, it is also a symbol of the social changes descending on this rural part of Ireland. The radio as well as the gramophones Michael's father sells bring modern as well as traditional music into every home, so the gloves Rose and Agnes are knitting at home, will be made by machines n factories. Actually, neither Rose and Agnes will be at home when these changes take place. Rose;s gullibility with a married man leads to her and Agnes running away to London. You'll hear about what happens to them there as well as to those who remain at Ballybeg from Michael in his poetic closing speech.

If there's any downside to this production it's that the authenticity of the accents is something less than a blessing, at least for the four younger sisters. Their thickly accented dialogue often comes too fast to be fully understood. That said, this not to be missed revival is the Irish Rep's third producton of a Brian Friel play. Hopefully it won't be the last for there are other trips to Ballybeg worth taking as you'll see If you take a look at Curtainup's Brian Friel Backgrounder.


Dancing at Lughnasaa by Brian Friel
Directed by Charlotte Moore Cast: Orlagh Cassidy (Kate), Kevin Collins (Gerry), Michael Countryman (Jack), Annabel Hägg (Chris), Jo Kinsella (Maggie), Aedín Moloney (Rose), Ciaran O'Reilly (Michael), Rachel Pickup (Agnes)
Set design: Antje Ellermann
Costume design: Linda Fisher and Jessica Barrios
Lighting design: Richard Pilbrow and Michael Gottlieb
Music by Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson
Sound: M. Florian Staab
Choreography: Barry McNabb
Hair and wig design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Props: Deirdre Brennan
Dalect coach: Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager:s Pamela Brusoski
A little more than 2 hours with one intermission
The Irish Repertory Theatre 132 West 22nd Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, 212-727-2737 or
From 10/19/11; opening 10/30/11; closing 12/11/11.
Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm; plus 3pm matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.
Tickets are $55 and $65.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 28th press performance
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