Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Brian Friel’s Tony and Olivier-Award winning semi-autobiographical drama Dancing at Lughnasa has been a favourite since it debuted in 1990 at Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. The 43 year-old Toronto Irish Players (TIP), a community theatre focusing specifically on Irish plays, begins its current season with a new production directed by David Eden, now playing at Alumnae Theatre until November 3. “Dancing at Lughnasa is a much-loved Irish play,” Mr Eden offers, noting that Friel has come to be regarded as “the Irish Chekhov”. Widely considered his masterwork, the play “is even studied in high schools in Ireland!”
The plot invites us to travel back to the summer of 1936 in the village of Ballybeg in County Donegal just before the festival of Lughnasa, a Celtic celebration of the pagan god of the harvest. The adult narrator Michael (played by Enda Reilly) introduces us to the five Mundy sisters: his unmarried mother Christina (Lauren McGinty) and four maiden aunts who, during his childhood decades earlier, eked out a sparse existence in a small shared home. Teacher Kate (Erin Jones) is the primary breadwinner. Agnes (Donna O’Regan) and Rose (Áine Donnelly) knit and sell mittens to contribute to the family coffer. And red-headed, cigarette-loving, riddle-wielding Maggie (Rebecca De La Cour) helps Christina keep house and raise Michael, who was 7 years of age that summer. The adult Michael recalls several life-changing moments in the Mundys’ world which are depicted on-stage. His elderly uncle Jack, a priest (Ian McGarrett), returned home after serving as a missionary in a Ugandan leper colony for 25 years. Michael also met his father Gerry Evans (Sean Gilheany), a charming but shiftless Welsh drifter, for the first time. And the music from the sisters’ newly-acquired radio “Marconi” seemed on the cusp of transforming the strict Catholic sisters into carefree women who can dance away the mundanity of their lives. Michael’s memories conjure a dreamy spell of remembrance that honours the past while making sense of the present.
“Seeing this play is always a good idea, as it deals with memory and how we perceive it,” Mr Eden enthuses. “I find that, as I age, passing along family memories becomes more and more important to me. Stories such as how my grandparents met [and] growing up in my hometown”. Mr Eden’s vision for the play is rooted in the theme of memories. Michael (who is the same age as Brian Friel was when he wrote the play) is looking back from the 1960s at the 1930s. As he looks back (and we look back with him), he becomes more and more involved in his memories, unable to stay detached. Finally, he literally puts things back the way they were in the beginning, then looks back at them as the play ends.
“My goal was to find ways to represent the struggles in the play, such as the pagan, old religion bubbling up against the Christian traditions. Or the way that change is coming to sweep away the hundreds of years of the family’s lifestyle by way of the radio, industrialisation and the coming war.” The set design by Chandos Ross reinforces these ideas. The family’s claustrophobic kitchen takes up the bulk of the stage, making it the focal point of the simple set. The very walls of the house are angled, a physical embodiment of Kate’s unease that the family is coming apart and about to split up. It is here, the heart of the Mundy home, that most of the sisters’ exchanges and arguments take place, amid their domestic duties.
We sense, more than see, subtle undercurrents of impending trouble within their interactions. Even the manic dancing that provides momentary diversion hints at the seismic changes to come, which tend to occur offstage and be revealed by the adult Michael. In fact, the titular “dancing” becomes a potent and pervasive symbol of joy. A major part of what Michael reconstructs through the filaments of memory is his family’s ability to find happiness within that uncertainty. In the kitchen of their crumbling house, they dance as much to celebrate a fleeting present as to ward off a change-bringing future. “In spite of everything, the sisters find this when they dance around the kitchen. Jack remembers all the dancing in the leper colony, in spite of the lepers not having limbs. And Gerry brings ‘modern’ dancing to the sisters (he even says ‘everybody wants to dance’ when talking about his dance school in Dublin). So, in essence, no matter how bad things are, you can always find joy.”
TIP staged Dancing at Lughnasa for the first time in 1995, and many of that cast came to the opening-night performance of this production. “The best plays are ones that focus on the human experience and can therefore transcend their setting” opines Mr Eden. Dancing at Lughnasa, which has been translated into other languages and is performed around the world, is this kind of play. This 1936 household – run by women who are trying to scrape by in hard times – resonates in 2018 Toronto: “They live their lives without much (electricity and running water, for example) but somehow survive. Their lives are invariably shaped by men, as the new constitution would define a woman’s place as in the home…. Their brother, even when he was in Africa, inherited the home, not them!” The “very patriarchal society” that the Mundy sisters belong to makes the story relatable, as does the way “these women struggle but manage to find joy and fun in life. As Father Jack says about the lepers in Africa, ‘they are not so different from ourselves’.” The same is true of adult Michael on his memory quest, and of the struggling yet dancing Mundy sisters. This universality has made the play a modern masterpiece and a darling of audiences Irish and otherwise, and it gets a poignant and memorable telling by Mr Eden and Toronto Irish Players.
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What: Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel; presented by Toronto Irish Players; directed by David Eden
Featuring: Erin Jones (Kate Mundy), Rebecca De La Cour (Maggie Mundy), Lauren McGinty (Christina Mundy), Áine Donnelly (Rose Mundy), Donna O’Regan (Agnes Mundy), Enda Reilly (Michael Evans), Sean Gilheany (Gerry Evans), Ian McGarrett (Father Jack)
Who: Audiences 12 years of age and older
When: On stage until November 3, 2018; running time: 2 hours & 30 minutes (includes one intermission)
Where: Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: torontoirishplayers.com
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine