"Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you who you are," a celebrated French gastronome once said. In "Dancing at Lughnasa," the Irish playwright Brian Friel paraphrases it: "Show me how you dance, and I'll tell you who you are."
"Dancing at Lughnasa" is a memory play, a reminiscence of rural Ireland during the Great Depression.
But it goes beyond nostalgia for a seemingly simpler time. In a young man's memories of his unmarried aunts lies a sense of primeval yearnings, primitive forces always lurking beneath the placid pastoral surface.
Both in his elegiac language and in his powerful visual images, especially those of people dancing, Friel has built an unusually poetic piece of theater.
One of the most memorable scenes occurs during the first act. The sisters, who live in a cottage in County Donegal, have a defective radio, their only link to the outside world. From time to time, however, the signal comes through clearly and music fills the sparsely furnished room.
This time, the music begins with a relentless beat that seems more African than Irish, but soon we hear an ancient Irish air bleated out on primitive instruments. The sisters begin dancing. The earthiest of them moves with an unmistakably sensuous, even savage step. Even the most spinsterish of them abandons her sense of decorum. In their movements, they echo their sisters millennia ago who surrendered themselves to the demands of a primitive cult. Their responses indicate how forcibly these Christian women must restrain their primal longings.
What makes everything about the play unbearably poignant is the realization that the primitive forces within are as nothing compared to those that - in the summer of 1936 when the play is set - were about to engulf the world.
At times, Friel is too schematic about suggesting these subterranean forces. The women have a brother who has come back from years as a missionary in Africa.
The parallels between the customs he describes and the events in the cottage are sometimes too pat. At one point, for example, he gives an engaging description of the polygamy in Ryanga, and immediately afterward the young man who has given one of the sisters a bastard son asks one of the other sisters to dance and squires her around seductively.
Even the radio music is sometimes too obvious. When our sense of the repressiveness of rural Ireland is complete, suddenly we hear "Anything Goes" being played in an irresistible '30s arrangement.
But these quibbles are minor, for Friel's verbal music, though it begins slowly, builds to an overwhelmingly haunting crescendo.
If the performances have an arresting authenticity, it is because almost the whole cast is Irish.
As a narrator, Gerald McSorley has a mellifluous but somewhat flinty voice that gives a bit of an edge to Friel's elegant language, especially the gorgeous final monologue. He is also endearing as a young boy.
Catherine Byrne has a lovely nobility as the boy's mother, as does Brid Brennan as the most delicate of the sisters. Dearbhla Molloy has an infectious earthiness as the most open, Brid ni Neachtain an endearing gaiety as a retarded girl, and Rosaleen Linehan gives even the starchiest of them a vulnerability. Robert Gwilym could not be more beguiling as the sisters' only sex object, and Donnelly gives the missionary a poignant grace.
Splendidly directed and designed, "Dancing at Lughnasa" is a rich, deeply moving evening of theater.
Here is a remarkable play - a wondrous experience in a memory-lock of time and place, an evocation of people, ritual, religion, paganism and that dance of life which seems to push us from season to season in ageless celebration of some hidden rhythm.
Fancy? Of course. Something even more fancy is called for in commemorating Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" which opened at the Plymouth Theater last night, and displayed a fine playwright in a new guise, as a grand master. If the 62-year-old Friel never writes another play, he can be content that he has created a work fit to be placed alongside the greatest in Irish drama.
Written for and originally staged by Dublin's Abbey Theater, it comes to us after a London triumph at Britain's National Theater. It is every bit as opalescently dazzling as transatlantic reports suggested.
Friel's work has sometimes unkindly been dubbed "Chekhov and water," but perhaps "Chekhov and Guinness" would be a fairer and more apt description. For while he does suggest the soft-muted and wryly humorous undertones of fate surrendered and hope faintly sustained, which we associate with Chekhov, there is also a wild and brawling Irishness here, an abundance of language and a rhapsodic poetry.
There is sadness with a Celtic difference, longing with a special humor, and that nostalgic awareness of pain with the Irish can carry almost to the point of sentimentality before safely leaving it poignant.
The time is 1936 - Europe is drifting into war, and Ireland is slipping into the 20th century. The narrator, Michael, a man of uncertain middle age, is looking back on two days just three weeks apart that early August in County Donegal. It was the first, and I suppose last, time his odd family was ever together.
There was his mother, his four aunts, his invalid uncle - a missionary priest who lost and found himself in a leper colony in Uganda - and his visiting father, a charming Welsh ne'er-do-well, who never married his mother, and now is a salesman of shifty promises.
The family is about to collapse. The people will more or less survive - Michael occasionally tells us what is going to happen to them during the next few decades or so. But Ireland is changing, even the spasmodically working Marconi radio in the living room bears witness to that, and nothing is going to be the same. The family is caught in the whirlpool of a watershed.
Unknowingly, they realize it. And the women have a desire somehow to go to the local Lughnasa Festival, a harvest festival of pagan origin, where the people collected bilberries and danced. They don't get there - although at the end of the first act, in a huge galumphing fashion they give themselves over to a Dionysiac dance. But the dance and the dancing become a metaphor for their lives and survival.
The action - what there is of it - is as romanticized as Joe Vanek's self-consciously pretty but powerfully effective setting (an opened-up cottage interior with a waving, Van Gogh-like cornfield behind it) but its keening lament for time and people past wraps round the heart.
As Friel himself puts it right at the play's eloquent end - "atmosphere is more actual than incident." In literature that may be the 20th century legacy of Proust, and here the atmosphere wells up like a mist gently shrouding Friel's fading family.
It is a sweetly sensitive play, but that sweetness or sensitivity owes much here to its superlative staging. Certainly the production - from Patrick Mason's understated but firm direction to the acting of the entire cast - leaves absolutely nothing to chance.
Faced with this ensemble of Abbey players - Irish actors seem always at their best in company - I don't know where to start.
To single out Donal Donnelly (what an actor!) as the slightly damaged priest, would obviously be unfair to the five glistening sisters - a sorority that mingles jauntiness with quiet desperation - all played with individualized grace by Brid Brennan, Catherine Byrne, Rosaleen Linehan, Dearbhla Molloy and Brid Ni Neachtain (I'd hate to be a Tony nominator faced with this luminous pleiad of choices), not even to mention Robert Gwilym as the charming Welsh masher or Gerard McSorley as the child/narrator looking back in wonder.
It is a play and performance that puts not a step wrong - from the unerring detail (Woodbine cigarettes, or the war in Spain) to the overall sweep of gesture, and the unforced poetry of regret. This is a play in no way to be missed - simply a wondrous experience. Experience it.
Whenever an Irish dramatist writes a great play, or even a not-so-great one, habit demands that non-Irish audiences fall all over themselves praising the writer's poetic command of the English language. Those audiences may be in for a shock at "Dancing at Lughnasa," Brian Friel's new play at the Plymouth Theater, for its overwhelming power has almost nothing to do with beautiful words.
Just as living is not a literary experience, neither is theater at its fullest -- theater that is at one with the buried yearnings and grave disappointments that are the inescapable drama of every life. In "Dancing at Lughnasa," Mr. Friel and an extraordinary company of actors, most of whom originated their roles at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, uncover that eternal drama in stolen glances, in bursts of unexpected laughter, in an idle fox trot to a big-band tune on the radio. That is the poetry of this play -- its "dream music," in the narrator's phrase -- and like the most fragrant music, it strikes deep chords that words cannot begin to touch.
Words are hardly scanted in "Dancing at Lughnasa," but as Mr. Friel gradually reveals, they serve a different, less ethereal, more troubling function. Many of them are spoken by that narrator, a middle-aged autobiographical stand-in for the author named Michael (Gerard McSorley), who sets out to tell the audience about the "different kinds of memories" he has of three weeks in August 1936, when he was 7 years old.
As Michael says at the outset, nothing of remarkable note happened over those weeks at the rural, financially straitened County Donegal house where he lived with five unmarried women, his mother, Chris (Catherine Byrne), and her four sisters. His little-seen father, a charming Welsh drifter named Gerry (Robert Gwilym), unexpectedly pops up for two brief visits. An old uncle, Jack (Donal Donnelly), returns to his sisters' home for keeps after 25 years in exile as a missionary priest at a Ugandan leper colony.
The only other red-letter event in the Mundy household is the arrival of its first wireless set, a clunky wooden box emblazoned with its brand name, Marconi. But the far-off music summoned by the radio, like the offstage village festival alluded to in Mr. Friel's title, exerts a tidal pull on the characters far stronger than any domestic occurrence. As the sisters go about their chores in Act I, bickering and gossiping and joking in the kitchen, they are titillated by intermittent reports of the Lughnasa celebration, in which their neighbors honor the pagan god of the harvest, Lugh, with dancing and fires and other back-hills rituals well beyond the bounds of their own strictly enforced Christian propriety. Though the women's participation in the fun remains unlikely, an explosion of Celtic music on the new radio possesses them all, even the schoolmarmish Kate (Rosaleen Linehan), and leads them into a spontaneous, short-lived dance in which uninhibited leaps and cries of pure animalistic hunger momentarily throw off the monotony of a drab, impoverished existence for an incandescent explosion of joy.
What does the dancing mean? It is not our business to know, exactly, for as Michael later says, dancing is a language "to whisper private and sacred things" -- the expression of a search for an "otherness," a passion that might be spiritual or romantic or uncategorizable but that in any case is an antidote to the harsh facts of an earthbound existence. It is typical of the production's delicacy that in the first, tumultuous dance, each sister's gestures, steps and whoops have been precisely choreographed to raise the curtain, however briefly and enigmatically, on the individual passions of five contrasting private souls. It is typical of the play's own pagan force that that scene seems to yank the audience into communion with its own most private and sacred things, at a pre-intellectual gut level that leaves us full of personal feelings to which words can not be readily assigned.
Many of the other profoundly moving interludes in "Dancing at Lughnasa" grab the audience in the same way, by expressing the verbally inexpressible in gesture and music. The frustrated sexual affection between the young mother Chris and the ne'er-do-well Gerry is dramatized not in the dialogue of their tongue-tied reunion so much as in their Fred-and-Ginger spin to the radio's outpouring of "Dancing in the Dark," a song whose lyrics pointedly elude them. The unacknowledged longings of Uncle Jack, who seems to have left his heart back in Africa and has trouble retrieving his English vocabulary after 25 years of Swahili, can be articulated only when he walks toward the wheatfields beyond the Mundy garden and taps two sticks together in time with some Dionysian tribal rhythm banging about in his head. Almost as poignant are the faces of those characters who cannot hear the music or join in a dance: When the four other sisters watch Chris and Gerry two-step from afar, each of their expressions becomes a distinctive, haunting portrait in complex suppressed emotions.
As directed by Patrick Mason, "Dancing at Lughnasa" gets the brilliant acting it demands; no between-the-lines nuance is lost by the ensemble of eight performers. Among the more indelible images are those provided by Brid Brennan as the angriest and most secretive of the sisters and by Mr. Donnelly, whose aging, distracted, shuffling Uncle Jack adds a poignant perspective to a career that has been linked with Mr. Friel's since he starred as the sassy young protagonist in the playwright's first Broadway success, "Philadelphia, Here I Come!," 25 years ago.
Such is Mr. Friel's generosity of spirit that every acting assignment in this play makes the actors stretch, starting with Mr. McSorley, who must act not only his present age but also fill in the voice of Michael as a wide-eyed and often lost child. Even seemingly unsympathetic characters like the irresponsible Gerry and the stern Kate are aware of their own limitations, and in the performances of Mr. Gwilym and Ms. Linehan, they concede their faults with a defenseless candor that makes one want to embrace them no less than the boisterous, good-humored Maggie (Dearbhla Molloy) and the simple, fragile Rose (Brid Ni Neachtain).
For all Mr. Friel's compassion toward the characters in "Dancing at Lughnasa," he is not remotely sentimental. In a chilling device that recurs in his canon, he periodically has Michael step out of the past and jump-cut the narration to tell the audience what will happen to the characters long after the play's circumscribed action is over. It is giving away nothing to say that the denouements are cruel, for Mr. Friel's people, no less than anyone else, are headed toward death, some by paths more circuitous and tragic than others.
Yet the play keeps going well after Michael has told the audience all the bad news its characters will some day learn. This is a memory play, after all, and as Michael says, in memory "atmosphere is more real than incident" and nothing is owed to fact. Even knowing what he knows and what everyone knows about life's inevitable end, he clings to his vision of his childhood, a golden end-of-summer landscape in this production's gorgeous design, for what other antidote than illusions is there to that inescapable final sadness? "Dancing at Lughnasa" does not dilute that sadness -- the mean, cold facts of reality, finally, are what its words are for. But first this play does exactly what theater was born to do, carrying both its characters and audience aloft on those waves of distant music and ecstatic release that, in defiance of all language and logic, let us dance and dream just before night must fall.