Encore Michigan

‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ a trip to 1930’s Ireland

Review March 04, 2019 Paula Bradley

PORT HURON, Mich.–Enter Stage Right and director Michael Murphy are bringing to life at the Citadel Stage in Port Huron Dancing at Lughnasa, a traditional play by Brian Friel and winner of the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play (among other awards).

Lughnasa is set in Ireland in 1936, and tells the tale of one summer in the lives of the Mundy family—five adult sisters and a brother, and the seven-year-old son of one of the sisters, who live in a modest cottage in the country. Adult Michael (Jake Buckley) acts narrator, telling the story as a collection of memories. (Young Michael does not appear on stage, although his “invisible” character is addressed by the others.) 

The siblings, all unmarried, each have a unique personality, but each contributes a piece of the puzzle that comprises the family. Eldest sister Kate (Lisa Kramp) is both the strictest and the most sensitive of the bunch, and provides the only regular wages as a schoolteacher. A devout Catholic, she is constantly reminding the others about proper behavior.  Agnes (Katie Weatherly) supplements to household finances by knitting gloves for sale and helping with household chores.  She is assisted in her knitting by Rose (Sara Prapotnik), a cheerful woman who appears afflicted by a developmental disability which renders her naïve and somewhat childlike. Maggie (Kelly Kennedy) is clearly in charge of the running the household, and is also the most jovial—always singing, telling riddles and lightening the situation. Christina (Emilee Lillian Caughel) is the youngest, and mother of Michael, who was born out of wedlock but is doted on by all the Aunts.

Oldest brother Jack (Steve Kenny), a Catholic priest, has recently returned from a 25-year stint as a missionary in Uganda.  His eccentric behavior is only partly explained by his affliction with malaria, and he seems to have intermingled many of the spiritual and social views of the people of Uganda with traditional Catholic teaching, a situation which makes Kate uncomfortable. 

The family connection and joy of each other is displayed when the sisters’ imagine going dancing at the local Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasa, motivated by their boredom and frustration with their somewhat dreary life in the cottage.  Led by the gregarious Maggie, they even draw Kate in to their revelry, clasping hands and spinning each other in reels, but alas, the joy is short-lived.

The unannounced arrival of Michael’s father Gerry Evans (Stewart Reed), who has a history of popping into and out of Christina’s life without notice, causes sudden emotional reactions: Kate is judgmental, Agnes is defensive, and Christina is conflicted. She is weary of dreaming that Gerry will ever do the right thing by her and Michael, yet she is quickly charmed by him once again, especially when he promises to bring Michael a bicycle—and to marry Christina when he returns from fighting in the Spanish Civil War, for which he is volunteering (perhaps for lack of any viable career).

As the story progresses, we can see that the closeness of the family is at risk of coming apart, a fact which adult Michael later confirms. Fr. Jack’s precarious health is improving, but there is still some confusion as to why he was sent home by his superiors. Rumors in the town swell when he doesn’t resume regular priestly duties, and the rumors threaten Kate’s job at the school.  Rose’s trusting infatuation with a married man—who is clearly taking advantage of her—has the sisters worried. Agnes and Rose’s financial contribution is at risk due to a new automated factory. And Gerry’s presence causes more than one rift among the sisters.  Little by little, Michael’s childhood innocence is being supplanted by the real effects of conflict, even among family members who love each other. We never get to see Michael fly the kites that he assembles at the beginning of the story.

Lughnasa is not the sort of tale that features a series of events that build to a climax and a neat, even if sad, conclusion.  Rather, the audience is allowed to slowly form its own conclusions, which are later validated through subtle revelations. It is really a tale of family dynamics, of opportunities lost, of dealing with hardships and disappointments. 

Several of the performances are delightful, especially Kennedy bringing Maggie’s energetic, animated character to life, and Kenny, who really sold Fr. Jack as the eccentric and somewhat bumbling priest-turned-native.  There were some fun Irish accents, but not from the entire cast.  The cohesiveness of the show could have been improved if there were accents all around; even with differing degrees of success, the attempt would have been well received. 

Lighting and sound were well executed.  The set was homey and cottagey, modest and aged without being too run-down; it was decorated with a stone fireplace, useful buckets and baskets, even a water pump that produced real water.

Dancing at Lughnasa provides fodder for examination of family relationships, presented in an understated fashion.  It is playing at The Citadel Stage in Port Huron through March 17, 2019.