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‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ is powerful, emotional experience

By Staff | Jan 22, 2009

“Dancing at Lughnasa” the current offering at the Florida Rep really kicks-up its heels. The acting is superb, the direction by Maureen Haffernan is first rate, the sets by Ray Recht and the light design by Matt McCarthy; costume designs Roberta Malcolm couldn’t by more on target or more imaginative, Irish dance choreography by Patricia Flynn looks natural and spontaneous with every movement. To sum up Florida Rep’s rendition of “Dancing at Lughnasa” is a deep, emotionally powerful, theatrical experience. Lighthearted it isn’t, but Brian Friel’s Tony Award-winning, luminous memory play is given a professional, heart-wrenching, peerless, production. It is an enthralling play and, as such, well worth seeing.

The plot unfolds in memories As a grown man, Michael (Chris Clavelli) recalls a time in early August 1936 when he was a seven-year-old “love child” living with his four unmarried aunts – Kate (Jan Wikstrom), Maggie (Lisa Morgan), Agnes (Carrie Lund), Rose (Michelle Damato) – along with his beautiful mother Chris (Rachel Burttram) who never married his wandering bounder of a father Gerry (Brendon Powers). Also part of Michael’s memory is the last member of the family unit, his uncle Jack (Peter Thomasson), a disoriented missionary, just returning from a leper colony in Uganda.

It is harvest time in the town of Ballybeg, Ireland and, though it may be a Christian country, at harvest time pagan traditions are very much alive: this is a time of celebration with lots of whiskey and wild revelry, now is the time to set fires in the back hills to the harvest god, Lugh. The sisters start remembering the dance of the harvest feast day at Lughnasa. They erupt into a mad dance of ecstasy with high kicks, spinning, swirling, whirling, stomping, shrieking with wild abandon, losing all sense of Christian modesty. This insane dancing is a high point in the play, a catharsis of sorts, making this giving in to desire a liberating experience, helping one and all overcome sanity and, for a moment, forget life’s many disappointments as well as the daily drudgery of everyday living.

Michael is looking back at the sister’s last happy summer together, before their home breaks up and their lives are further thwarted and destroyed by industrialization and destiny.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is filled with rich, fully rounded characters, each with distinct mannerisms, personalities, hopes and dreams. The language is poetic, beautifully spoken with fine Irish brogues by this talented cast. Each of the five sisters, Michael, both as man and boy, Gerry, his father, and Jack, his uncle, have their moments in this well-crafted play.

As Chris, Burttram pulls out all the stops – she can be vain, sad and glad in a seamless, believable instant. Chris Clavelli is also equally convincing, either as a seven-year-old or the adult narrator of this play. Kate, the eldest sister (Wikstrom) is simply wonderful, as the practical, matriarchal woman who clings to her Catholic religion hoping she and it will keep the family together. Next is Agnes, (beautifully represented by Carrie Lund) a quiet, reserved woman who spends most of her time taking care of her simple-minded sister, Rose, skillfully portrayed by Damato. Kudos, bravos and heaps of congratulations belong to Lisa Morgan for capturing the strength, humor and depth of her multi-faceted character, Aunt Maggie. ‘Effervescent’ best describes Powers as Gerry, Michael’s father, making the carefree philanderer impossible to dislike. Thomasson in the missionary uncle role, Jack, gives a quietly, effective performance.

Nevertheless it is the sisters who are the pulsating heart of the play. This cast was right-on as a close-knit family living in each others’ apron pockets, with all the tension, love, tears, petty annoyances, and jealousies in which that involves; the five women were truly authentic and very effective.

This is a strongly emotional, potently written production, given a top-notch performance by a wonderful cast. Get your tickets now before it closes on Feb.1st, phone the box office at 332-4488. Show your support for live theater by one of the best performing arts group around, The Florida Rep When you phone remind ’em Marsha sent you.