Goodman Theatre

The time is August 1936 in rural County Donegal, and Lugh–the Celtic god of the harvest–is being honored with the pagan festival of Lughnasa. In the back hills there’s dancing and ritual and lovemaking–a joyous catharsis that’s darkly mysterious and sometimes dangerous, given the strength of the energies released. In the middle of it all, five sisters go about the tasks of daily life in their rigidly Christian household; if passion has not, strictly speaking, been denied them, they do what they can to deny it within themselves.

“You try to keep the home together,” says Kate, the eldest. “You perform your duties as best you can–because you believe in responsibilities and obligations and good order. And then, suddenly, you realize that hair cracks are appearing everywhere–that control is slipping away, that the whole thing is so fragile it can’t be held together much longer.” This control, so dear to Kate and so relied upon (and at times resented) by the other women in the household, crumbles bit by bit: in the face of change, under the pull of the back hills, and under the strain of repressed sexuality and vigor.

The narrator of Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel’s award-winning 1990 play, is Michael (Denis O’Hare), a mature man looking back on the (fictional) village of Ballybeg and his mother and four aunts. He makes sense of his past by reliving for us that particular festival of Lughnasa when, as a seven-year-old, he was aware of “things changing before my eyes, of becoming what they ought not to be.”

With him, we observe the household of women observing their own unwritten laws, stepping gracefully and efficiently around one another in the crowded kitchen where they spend most of their time. Kate (Tana Hicken), the upright schoolteacher whose wages and age grant her the right to lay down the law, is the matriarch. Maggie (the ever-earthy Kate Buddeke) is the clown, longing outright and loudly for a man, salving her discontent and her sisters’ with humor. Agnes (Pamela Nyberg) is a sweet-tempered peacemaker whose task it is to look after the simpleminded but oddly sagacious Rose (Kate Goehring). Michael’s unwed mother, Chris (Jenny Bacon), is the youngest and perhaps the most bitter, forever yearning for a man–Michael’s father–who’s always just out of reach.

But mostly the women stifle emotion and hang woodenly onto their routines. Their older brother, Jack (Richard Bauer), a priest enfeebled by malaria and culture shock, returns home after 25 years of ministering to a leper colony in Uganda. Once their hero, he now disturbs them with his illness and his reverence for the pagan rituals and spirits of the Ugandans, whom he describes with wistful nostalgia as “a remarkable people . . . they’ve such open hearts!” His high regard for their pagan ways separates him and his sisters from the Christian community that surrounds them, even as that community worships Lugh by sacrificing goats in the back hills.

Meanwhile Michael’s father (Patrick Clear) pays a fleeting, painfully awkward visit; Rose and Agnes lose the small wages they earned knitting gloves at home when a new factory opens up; and Rose has a dalliance with a married man. In many ways Rose, the most primal of the sisters, is treated much like Jack–like a much beloved child half-feared for its habit of blurting out truths at inconvenient moments, for seeing clearly that even well-ordered religion must not deny life but embrace it, for indulging in dance, and in joy.

When the sisters do allow themselves a moment of release, in the safety of their own kitchen, it takes the form of a fierce, primitive dance–a breathtaking act of defiance that lasts several minutes and leaves them speechless. Occurring early in the first act, it makes the audience aware of the depth of emotion of which these women are capable–taken hostage by their dance, the audience aches to see it happen again, and remains riveted to the action.

The Goodman Theatre, in collaboration with the Arena Stage of Washington, D.C., delivers a warm, engrossing production directed with plenty of nuance by Kyle Donnelly. The beat of African drums mixes uneasily with Celtic wind instruments as the women pound out their own percussion in common household tasks, the rattle of chicken feed counterpointing the sweep of an iron smoothing out a surplice. Linda Buchanan’s set design–a combined kitchen and garden–does not convey the claustrophobia one might expect in a place that houses seven people, but it is richly textured, and the sky beyond is a multicolored, irresistible invitation to dance.

The ensemble is excellent, delivering consistently interesting and detailed performances. As the narrator, O’Hare is nearly always outside the action, but he does not act as a mere guide through memories–instead he gives us a man undergoing a subtle struggle to come to terms with them. Nearly as repressed as his aunts but never given the opportunity to dance on the kitchen table, O’Hare’s Michael achieves catharsis by revisiting Ballybeg, and as difficult as it might be for him, it’s worth the trip for us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.