Actors: Centre: Pippa Johnstone, Circle L-R Courtney Shields, Georgia Beaty, Emma Johnson, Back Tracy Schut.  Photo Credit: Tim MathesonTheatre at UBC
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel
Dates and Venue
15 November - 1 December 2012, 7.30 pm | Frederic Wood Theatre, UBC

Director John Cooper Set Designer Carolyn Rapanos Costume Designer Stephanie Kong Lighting Won-Kyoon Han Sound Designer Andrew Tugwell Instrumental recordings Geoffrey Kelly Stage Manager Cat Robinson Assistant Director Kathy Yan Li

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

Brian Friel’s luminous memory play is about many things, among them the restrictive power of the Roman Catholic Church in rural Ireland, the narrow, mostly self-sufficient way of life, cottage industry and the arrival of industrial factories, and also poverty, language, longing and unfulfilled lives. At its heart is the story of the 5 Mundy sisters narrated by the adult Michael Evans, Christine Mundy’s illegitimate child. Michael is 7 years old at the time the play is set, 1936 during the Feast of Lughnasa, the August harvest festival time in Ireland when pagan licence is in the air and the bilberries are ripe.

The device of a narrator lends an atmosphere of nostalgia and detachment. Further, the most painful events happen off-stage, between scenes or after the play is over. It is John Cooper’s beautiful direction and the immediate connection with the audience of Alen Dominguez’s Michael that brings the sisters’ tragedy into sharp focus. When the play opens the sisters are managing – just - as they have for years but little by little the fragile structure of their way of life becomes apparent and we watch it slowly disintegrate.

Kate (Tracy Schut) is the eldest sister. She is, as Michael tells us, a very proper woman, being a national schoolteacher, and the only wage-earner. Nevertheless, she can’t help being loving and kind. Maggie (Courtney Shields) does the outside chores and is the most cheerful, constantly asking riddles and singing raucous parodies of popular songs. Agnes (Georgia Beaty), the quietest sister, does the inside tasks. All the sisters take care of Rose (Pippa Johnstone) who is ‘simple’ but she is Agnes’s special care. Agnes and Rose earn money knitting gloves for the local agent. The last sister is Michael’s mother Chris (Emma Johnson), 26 years old. Life is hard but manageable and the family radiates deep affection.

In Michael’s memory, three important things happened that summer: the acquiring of a Marconi wireless set, the somewhat mysterious return of his uncle, Father Jack (Kenton Klassen), from 25 years of ministering to a leper colony in Uganda and the first visit by his charming, feckless father Gerry (Matt Reznek) that Michael is old enough to understand. Each of the three events has unsettling repercussions.

A wonderful ensemble piece, the play gives everyone equal weight. All the actors in this talented cast have a good grasp of their characters, capably exposing their interior lives. Emma Johnson lights up the stage with happiness when she is dancing with Gerry. Georgia Beaty’s gentle Agnes keeps the audience subtly aware that still waters run deep. Courtney Shields, generally energetic and heartily humorous Maggie, is touchingly overwhelmed by memories of past happiness. Rose, Pippa Johnstone, is at once naïve and childishly knowing. Tracy Schut as Kate shows the weight of responsibility fighting a generous nature to a fine degree.

The men too exhibit good work in Kenton Klassen’s bewildered Father Jack and Matt Reznek’s implausible, disarming Gerry. It is heartbreaking but not at all surprising to learn Michael’s father has a wife and family at home in Wales. Alen Dominguez as Michael is the detached observer coolly relating the events he remembers. But at the same time, he is always emotionally engaged. Like the audience, he knows the ending of his story, but for him as for the audience, that knowledge only deepens the emotional impact. It is the interplay of character, the mystery of love, the sharpness of fear, the ecstasy of dance that catch us by surprise and break the heart.

The production team, Stephanie Kong (Costume design), Carolyn Rapanos (Set design), Won-Kyoon Han (Lighting design), Andrew Tugwell (Sound design) and Geoffrey Kelly (instrumental recordings) have done a fine job in creating a physical world for this play. I particularly liked the projections, apt and unobtrusive.

© 2012 Elizabeth Paterson