Dancing at Lughnasa

Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of the Tony Award-winning drama “Dancing at Lughnasa” has all the makings of a moving, powerful story, but the elements never quite come together.

Playwright Brian Friel tells us of five unmarried sisters living in rural Ireland in 1936, and he does so through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy, now grown and reflecting upon his childhood. The boy, however, is a minor character; it is his mother and aunts who take center stage.

The boy’s mother is Chris (Tara Falk), a pretty, mildly vain woman who had her son out of wedlock. The aunts come in all shapes and sizes. The oldest is Kate (Giulia Pagano), a practical, matriarchal woman who clings to Catholicism in the apparent hopes that it will keep the family together. Next is Agnes (Joyce Cohen), a quiet, reserved woman who spends most of her time taking care of Rose (Brenda Foley), who is simple and dim. The fifth sister is Maggie (Jo Twiss), a big, vibrant, fiesty gal who loves to cook and who, in 15 years or so, could be Marion the Librarian’s mother in “The Music Man.”

The common thread connecting all these characters is that their lives have known serious disappointment. Maggie’s old school chum is now married and has beautiful twin daughters; the man that Kate fancies from afar is engaged to marry someone else; Chris’s true love (and the father of her son) is flaky and non-committal; the list goes on.

Through it all, what keeps them happy and sane is dancing. In one scene, after Maggie has shared a monologue about her high school friend, all five sisters wind up dancing to the Irish folk music playing on their radio. The movement is wild and frenetic, accompanied by shrieks and screams as the women hike up their skirts and dance around the house. It’s primitive, really — just like the pagan rituals that go on up in the hills, and which their malaria-stricken brother Jack witnessed and occasionally embraced while in Africa. The sisters — particularly pious Kate — frown upon such “non-Christian” activity, but their dancing is remarkably similar to the pagan rites, and it serves a similar purpose: to maintain happiness, to appease the god of misfortune for a few minutes more, and to achieve a catharsis of sorts.

The characters’ lives are marked by sadness, but this is not a sad play. The point, in fact, is that they stave off their sadness simply by loving each other, by making jokes with each other, by having picnics out on the lawn, and, yes, by dancing. (The “Lughnasa” of the title refers to a fertility festival held in mid-summer and accompanied by much dancing, and it’s pronounced “LOO-na-sa.”)

This show won a Tony for Best Play in 1992, and one can see why. The script is full of real, honest characters, with dialogue that seems so natural you’d swear you were watching an Irish home video. But in this production, little of the emotion comes through. It is apparent which scenes are supposed to strike our hearts — usually it’s a monologue, as spoken by Kate, Maggie or Rose — but when it’s passed, we realize that it simply didn’t come together for us. “Dancing at Lughnasa” dances around the audience’s heart, but never quite enters in.

I could tell there was SOMETHING to this show, but I couldn't tell what it was. I left thinking, "Yeah, so?" There didn't seem to be a theme, or a point, or anything like that -- or more accurately, it seemed like there WAS one, and it just didn't come across very well. Still, they did a nice job, and we ate at Chili's first, which is always fun.