Nora Hussey and Marta Rainer’s bittersweet DANCING AT LUGHNASA (at Wellesley Summer Theatre thru June 23rd) elegantly captures the deep sadness and fleeting happiness of the Brian Friel masterpiece. I’ve seen funnier versions of the play but none as heartbreaking. Hussey has assembled a talented repertory company at WST and LUGHNASA fits them like the gloves the Mundy sisters knit to keep the family afloat.
The knitting and the teaching the eldest sister (a radiant Charlotte Peed) does at the parochial school in town, buys the flour for the soda bread and the sugar to make jam from the wild bilberries they pick. It’s a simple, lonely life for the five sisters whose childhood dreams have long since evaporated. Margaret Dunn (whose whole being brilliantly betrays disappointment and longing) is the second in command, closely watching over Elisabeth Yancey’s sweet, frail, too trusting Rose.
Angela Bilkic plays the only sister with a child. The boy’s father promises to marry her but Bilkic portrays her with a guarded resignation which momentarily lifts in his presence—but returns when he prattles on without any regard for her or their son, about his latest, long distance “destination.” Will Bouvier has a grand time boasting about his prospects and his dubious “omens.”
Will Keary is the son/narrator we meet as an adult, remembering growing up in this peculiar, loving, all inclusive Irish family. Keary also plays him (with a tender innocence)as a little boy, sitting outside on the ground, always looking up at the tall women who wash him, feed him, tease him and adore him. Sarah Barton gives a bravura performance as the prankster sister always singing (beautifully) and joking with her nephew, finding time to engage the child. It’s his memory which names the play, when the sisters forget their cares long enough for an exuberant dance to celebrate the festival of Lughnasa.
The dance is immensely moving but it’s John Davin whose performance takes your breath away in this production, as the unwitting catalyst of the story, the “Irish outcast” who returns home after 25 years. He’s the little boy’s failing uncle, suffering from malaria, faltering as a result of quinine poisoning from the very drugs he has to take to stay alive. He mixes up names, he can’t find the words he needs desperately to express his emotions; He has trouble finding his way around the house. Davin’s Uncle Jack looks so terribly lost when we first meet him, reaching out his hand for a word, like a beggar for alms: You could hear the quiet gasps from the audience (me included), profoundly touched by his plight.
If only we could have witnessed a reprise of the dance when the son/narrator closes the play with thoughts of memories as “mirages.” We, too, could have left under its “spell.”