Dancing at Lughnasa

This revival of Brian Friel's lyrical drama is a reminder of the power of memory

Arts Review

Dancing at Lughnasa

Austin Playhouse, through March 1

Running time: 2 hr, 15 min

A man remembers.

In a sense, that's all there is to Brian Friel's play: a man conjuring a moment of his past in which little of moment occurred.

And yet, as the memories of Michael, the narrator of Dancing at Lughnasa, take shape around him in Austin Playhouse's new production, we're made aware of how much is going on even when nothing appears to be happening, how lives are brushing against one another and being altered by the slightest contact, how time is still rushing forward and swiftly turning the present into the past.

The fragment of his past that Michael conjures is the August of his seventh year, when all the talk in his village was of the harvest and harvest celebrations; when the cottage that he and his mother shared with her four sisters filled with music, thanks to an old radio they'd acquired; when the sisters' only brother returned to Ireland from Uganda, where he had spent 25 years ministering in a leper colony; and when Michael's father paid the last of his rare visits to their home.

As we come to know these characters in their present, we also come to know their pasts, as people here slip regularly into reveries of yesterday. This play is a house of memory, and the people in it take shelter under its eaves. In some scrap of nostalgia or joy or aliveness they knew long ago, they find refuge from a present that is tenuous and a future that terrifies. The five sisters are just scraping by with the money brought in by Kate's job teaching and the sale of gloves knitted by Agnes and Rose, and neither livelihood is secure, given the disturbing warning Kate received from the schoolmaster and the talk of a textile factory opening. When Babs George's Kate surrenders her prim schoolmarm comportment to the real possibility that her family's life is unraveling, the panic in her eyes cracks the heart. It's a pain mirrored elsewhere: in Steve Shearer's Father Jack when he first shuffles into view, eyes reddened and moist and painfully lost, a man uprooted from the land that had become his home; in the sunken shoulders and aching silence of Rebecca Robinson's Agnes, who pines for Michael's father, Gerry – a disarmingly charming Brian Coughlin – even as he dances with Christina, the sister who bore his child (Lara Toner, guarded yet still drawn to her bounder beloved).

But these characters step into a memory and ever so briefly let go of their concerns and fears about their lives. We see it in the broadening grin on Cyndi Williams' face as her Maggie recalls a dance contest in her youth, in the light in Shearer's eyes as Father Jack recalls a pagan ceremony of the harvest. A train-station farewell, jam, a friend, their mother – all are recalled and provide refuge from the storms of today and tomorrow. The relief is but momentary, though, which gives both play and production its bittersweet edge. As Michael weaving his spell of memory, Huck Huckaby speaks so gently, it's as if he's tending a soap bubble, something so fragile and evanescent that it might vanish if not handled with utmost care. I can't say if Don Toner's staging here betters the one he did for Live Oak Theatre 16 years ago – Irish accents come and go like summer breezes, and opening weekend, some bits still felt choreographed more than lived – but it did make me appreciate anew Friel's lyrical, stirring script and the preciousness and power of memory.

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Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel, Austin Playhouse, Don Toner, Babs George, Huck Huckaby, Steve Shearer, Cyndi Williams

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