By Matthew Waterman, H-T Reviewer
The little Irish town of Ballybeg was something of an obsession for the playwright Brian Friel, who set a number of his dramas there. Ballybeg does not actually exist, but one wouldn’t know it from Friel’s work. Friel creates a rich sense of place, making Ballybeg seem as real as anywhere.
Friel died last October, but only after leaving behind well over a lifetime’s worth of writing. One of his Ballybeg plays, “Dancing at Lughnasa” (LOO-nuh-suh), is the first mainstage production of the year for the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. Dale McFadden directed the show, which plays in the large Ruth N. Halls Theatre.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” takes place in 1936. The story is told through the memories of Michael Evans, who was 7 years old at the time. Michael is growing up in the Mundy family home, inhabited by the five Mundy sisters.
1936 is a year of great change in the lives of Agnes, Kate, Chris, Maggie and Rose Mundy. They have just obtained their first radio. More importantly, the Mundy home takes in Father Jack, a weathered man in his late 50s (though he often seems much older) who has recently returned from decades of work as a missionary in a Ugandan leper colony.
Father Jack exhibits signs of dementia, as well as a persistent preoccupation with the cultural and religious traditions of Uganda. He no longer seems to be a Catholic.
The Mundy sisters are all unmarried, so much of the play revolves around their ever-shifting prospects for husbands. The most important suitor in the play is Gerry Evans, who fathered Michael but did not marry Chris Mundy, Michael’s mother.
There are many plots and subplots in “Dancing at Lughnasa,” but the one that captured my attention the most was the relationship between Gerry Evans and Chris Mundy. Gerry periodically visits Ballybeg, each time with enthusiastic but untrustworthy promises of becoming a wonderful father and husband.
He dances with Chris and even seems to love her. He promises young Michael a new bicycle. But soon enough, he’s gone. In 1936, he leaves to fight in the Spanish Civil War — not for any political motivation, but for the sake of adventure. Actor Jason Craig West gives Gerry an alluring charm that makes us occasionally forget his neglect of his son.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” is a highly realistic play, one that shares the complexity and subtlety of a good novel. It’s also a long play, with extended conversations on a litany of topics that can become hard to track. There is little doubt that some who attend “Dancing at Lughnasa” will find the play boring. The drama isn’t mundane or inconsequential, but paying consistent attention becomes a bit of a task when a show in this style exceeds two and a half hours.
That being said, this production team has done a quite decent job of putting Friel’s script on the stage. The five Mundy sisters are played with energy, enthusiasm and convincing Irish dialects. Ashley Dillard (Kate), Meaghan Deiter (Maggie), Emily Sullivan (Agnes), Kathleen Cox (Rose) and Tess Cunningham (Chris) create palpable familial bonds onstage.
In a well-wrought performance as Michael Evans, Chris J. Handley ties the play together. Handley not only narrates us through what occurs before and after the onstage action, but also speaks the lines of the invisible 7-year-old Michael. Seeing the events of 1936 through a child’s eyes gives the story a special sadness and poignancy that it would not otherwise have.
The production is designed in a straightforward and authentic manner, with beautiful costumes from Emmie Phelps and a humble Irish homestead crafted by Ryan P. Miller.
As we approach the first anniversary of Brian Friel’s death, his work finds new life in the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. “Dancing at Lughnasa,” though not an intense play, is certainly a rich one.
If you go
WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.
WHAT: “Dancing at Lughnasa” by Brian Friel.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Halls Theatre in the Norvelle Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
TICKETS: $15-25. Available in person at IU Auditorium Box Office, by phone at 812-855-1103 or online at theatre.indiana.edu.