With much heart, some humor and an often laconic pacing, director Martin Benson pulls the audience in to Irish playwright Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa.” The SCR production makes it clear why the play is the most widely produced script in the American regional theater this season.
Closing out the South Coast Repertory’s 30th season, “Lughnasa” offers mostly a soft, lyrical look at the hard lives of five sisters.
Middle-aged Michael Evans (Richard Doyle) looks back on his family in Ballybeg, Ireland, 1936, when he was 7. The play is set during Lughnasa, the first few days of August in Ireland, named after the Celtic god of the harvest, Lugh.
Michael’s uncle Jack (Hal Landon Jr.), a priest, has just returned from 25 years as a missionary to a leper colony in Uganda. His strong affection for the African culture has left him, without his realization, no longer believing in Catholicism — causing ostracism.
Michael’s mother, Christina (Elizabeth Dennehy), finds that the infrequent visits from Michael’s father Gerry Evans (James Lancaster) — whom she never married — still light up her life, even if his promises may go unfulfilled.
Christina lives with four unmarried sisters: mousy seamstress Agnes (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), the simple-minded Rose (Ellen Lancaster), prim schoolteacher Kate (Megan Cole) and the ever-expressive Maggie (Kandis Chappell), who is the family’s housekeeper.
The five sisters exist near poverty level, with prospects of love and marriage nearly extinct for them. In contrast to their dismal existence, they manage to find occasional delight, particularly when they drop propriety and dance to their radio, the play’s brightest moment.
Playwright Friel seduces the audience with likable people who battle life’s inequities, and he populates the work with flowing language, symbolism and subtlety. He’s not interested in change of character or plot, but more the nuances of life.
Although there are no monologues or tracts on religion, the play clearly suggests that one’s “pagan” instincts — such as dancing — are what make life rich, not the formalism ofthe Church.
All the sisters come across with depth. When Lancaster’s Rose, for instance, comes back crushed from a visit with a man, she doesn’t say what happened, but her body language says much, and a handful of berries that she eats leaves a stain in the middle of her dress that becomes a mark of what occurred.
James Lancaster flourishes as Gerry, a person who would be seen as a loser by other families, but wins the sisters’ affection.
Ralph Funicello’s set design aptly captures the bleakness that surrounds these people and, in a painted backdrop whose sky suggests a Monet lily pond, the beauty that hovers behind.
Pauline Jenkins’ lighting, Garth Hemphill’s sound, Sylvia C. Turner’s choreography and Walker Hicklin’s costume design reinforce the text.