College of Charleston's ambitious Lughnasa harvests gold 

Dancing at the Cliff's Edge

click to enlarge Lughnasa-pic.jpg

As human beings, we can't help ourselves. We are pattern seekers and story builders by nature. We perceive order and continuity almost as load-bearing beams, propping up the structure of meaning in our lives.

But when we look back at shattering moments of change, mere words fail us. And we need more than facts to tell what happened. Our deepest memories seem to emerge like waking dreams, naturally expressing themselves in poetry as Wordsworth defined it — "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." We need that poetry.

Irish playwright Brian Friel's mostly autobiographical work Dancing at Lughnasa has been called a memory play. Friel's narrator looks back on one idyllic period in his childhood, and asks "How did everything change?" We know his question won't be satisfied by a prosaic accounting of cause and effect. In her College of Charleston production of Lughnasa, guest director Miranda Cromwell gives us Friel's poetry.

It's true that not very much happens in the play. The setting is rural Donegal in 1936, and the action takes place over two days set three weeks apart around the time of Lughnasa, the annual harvest festival. This is Michael Evans' (Peter Spearman) story, told by him in his dreamlike way, about his unwed mother Christina Mundy (Avery Cole) and her sisters.

We find the sisters Mundy, spinsters all, have slipped into the habit of isolation, largely keeping to their cottage and one another's company even though dreams of romance and love have not yet entirely abandoned them.

The eldest and the breadwinner of the family, Kate Mundy (Margaret Nyland), is a school teacher. Maggie (Caroline Connell) keeps herself busy running the household. Rose (Julia Hooks) and Agnes (Sadia Matthews) bring in a pauper's wage knitting gloves for sale in the town, a cottage industry that is about to be crushed by the arrival of a knitting factory. In every regard, the tight-knit Mundy family is unraveling before our eyes just as two men suddenly intrude upon their lives.

After decades as a missionary in Uganda, the Mundy's brother Jack (Gregory Mangieri) returns to Donegal with something of a cloud over him and his clerical career. He's a spirited man, but ailing and broken by being torn away from his life's calling.

Gerry Evans (Cameron Tubbs), Michael's father, is a charming ne'er do well who slips in and out of the picture just long enough to reconnect with Christina, stir up some jealousy, and give his seven-year-old son a glimpse of him before he heads off to fight with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. (Gerry has no political agenda in this, he simply sees the battle as a romantic adventure.)

These two men may not be catalysts for the changes taking place, but they are the only male role models Michael knows, and they make their appearance just as everything comes unglued. We may draw our own conclusions.

Spearman's Michael acts as both narrator, front and center, and observer, always at the edges of the action. His strong presence holds the center as he evokes the memory of these women in all their quirky glory.

Mangieri's Jack seems more winded by his troubles than entirely bereft. He's at his best recounting snippets of his life in Uganda — all full of passion and joy — even if those tales make his sister Kate distinctly uncomfortable. Nyland's Kate, who has the thankless job of riding herd over all this despite being powerless to keep it from falling apart, is memorably in command of the role.

Sisters Rose (Julia Hooks) and Agnes (Sadia Matthews) make a great team subtly undermining Kate's kindly hegemony as they pair off to attempt lives of their own.

The connection is somewhat looser between the supposed lovers (Cole's Christina and Tubbs's Gerry), who shine in individual performances and still manage to convey that they don't ring entirely true as a couple and probably never will.

Kudos to Caroline Connell, who even while hobbled with a cast, crutches, and sometimes wheelchair-bound, still manages to make Maggie the life of this party as the playwright intended. (Connell suffered a broken foot early on in rehearsals.)

"As you can imagine," says director Cromwell, "that changed a lot of choreography. And it completely changed the story because suddenly this bright, bubbly character who dances and keeps everyone up, is now playing this deeply ironic character who is in fact immobile in this production. But I found it does something fascinating to the text, it makes it all much sadder."

On loan to the College of Charleston from the renowned UK theater Bristol Old Vic, Artist-in-Residence Cromwell has infused her Lughnasa with music. With help from Alistair Debling, a colleague from Bristol, she's gone beyond Friel's script requirements, adding music and singing which serve to "keep the ensemble in tune with each other" — the thread that maintains the family context within the sister's individual storylines.

Scenic designer Charlie Calvert has fashioned a beautifully evocative mise-en-scène. Against a background structure rising like a kaleidoscope of window frames spilling upward, the sparse set dotted with simple furnishings invites us into this hardscrabble life. Window frames are also strewn about the set, functioning symbolically as well. Cromwell's cast literally bring window frames up to their faces, like shards of Michael's memories looking in upon themselves. In these ways, Cromwell and her team have given us a production that is visually more dynamic than it's nostalgic, sometimes languorous text.

Even so, Lughnasa leaves the audience swept up in its haunting dance. There are laughs along with real joy. Be prepared to pay close attention to the Irish-lilted dialogue. And be prepared to enjoy this ambitious, successful Lughnasa.


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