George Bernard Shaw, the iconoclastic Irish playwright, once observed that dance is a vertical expression of horizontal desire. Through that Dionysian public explosion of music and movement, we reveal our private, intimate, and hidden surges of feeling, feelings so forbidden that we could not possibly articulate them into words.
That said, Brian Frel’s Dancing at Lughnasa at Jobsite Theatre in Tampa is just such an evening of repressed desire and frenzied dance, with lyrically articulated words from some characters, while others stay painfully mute. And this frenzy is slathered over with a fair share of regret and despair — it is, after all, an Irish play.
But here comes this remarkable family of five unmarried Mundy sisters in rural Donegal. It’s narrated from nephew Michael’s adult point-of-view, recounting a summer spent in his aunts’ cottage in 1936 when he was seven. The ancient harvest festival of Lughnasa is once again upon them, a time of honoring the Celtic god of the sun. The young Michael stays invisible while his aunts dote on him, but the adult Michael (Michael C. McGreevy) reminds us gently of love and loss in exquisitely delivered monologues.Dancing at Lughnasa is a compelling piece of theater that manages to enthrall us while at the same time breaking our hearts.
I did occasionally wish for even more of their exuberant, unencumbered dancing, more flinging of convention aside, more shoving of faces into the juices of life, even while they remain triumphant in their can-do spirit and simple bull-headedness to keep on keeping on.
The narrator has both his memory of the past and the added reality of living into the future, so it’s through his experience that we encounter the dreams and defeats of this Irish clan. He shares the story of his aunts Kate (Nicole Jeannine Smith), Maggie (Katrina Stevenson), Agnes (Jonelle Meyer), Rose (Caitlin Eason), and his mother Chrissy (Emily Belvo), all with their own individual roles in this extended family, along with his addled Uncle Jack (Brian Shea), a priest just returned from a Ugandan leper colony, and Michael’s charming, ne’er-do-well Welsh father Gerry (Adam Workman). Through them all, we learn of age-old conflicts that have haunted this painfully beautiful country for so long.
Conflicts between the living and the dead, Catholic and pagan, rural and industrial, and action and memory are all encapsulated right here, right now, simultaneously real and illusory, in this one tiny cottage in this tiny village on this tiny stage. Scenic designer and technical director Kristen Kochanik Garza has created this mythic Irish cottage with its soot-stained fireplace, ever-haunting crucifix, and a stone-walled garden with soaring tree.
These actors inhabit their roles effortlessly and smoothly, fitting as perfectly as those gloves that Agnes spends her every waking hour knitting. Brian Shea was born to play Father Jack in all his jaunty buoyancy tinged with defeat. Katrina Stevenson must surely have been brought straight from Dublin to play Maggie who discovers laughter and sexual swagger as the only way to defeat a cruel world. Adam Workman as layabout Gerry projects just the right amount of bravado and charm, hiding his betrayals as absentee fathers do so well, and Michael McGreevy as the innocent child now all grown up with blinders removed is as effective a stage narrator as I’ve ever seen.
Like Tennessee William’s famously poetic play The Glass Menagerie — also set in 1936, also narrated by a grown man remembering his youth, also built on memory and illusion — Dancing at Lughnasa has its own lyrical approach to life. You want to give yourself over to such misty memories and rosy recollections of what life was like even while you sit in that small, appreciative audience and consider the harsh, bitter realities right outside this stage. But for a moment, we are transported by music, dance, language, laughter, love.
This is what live theater does best, and Jobsite’s efforts here, sensitively realized and masterfully directed by David M. Jenkins, confirm that making art is definitely part of the cure.
Ben Wiley is a retired professor of film and literature at St. Petersburg College. He also was on staff in the Study Abroad Office at University of South Florida as statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are in film, books, theatre, travel, literacy programs, kayaking Florida rivers. Contact him here.