I’ve never cared for terms like “bittersweet” or “dramedy” as they obsess with labels, when literature resists such facile categories. Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is a quietly electrifying, intensely moving memory piece (in some ways like The Glass Menagerie) in which Michael, illegitimate son of Christie Mundy, remembers when his family was in the usual upheaval, just before everything went completely sideways. Michael is the narrator, and in retrospect realizes that for all the brouhaha, the five Mundy sisters had each other, Michael, and the daft Uncle Jack, a missionary priest back from Africa.
Dancing at Lughnasa begins when Michael sets the story in motion, sometimes speaking as the seven-year-old boy, more or less oblivious to the deeper issues affecting the adults. His kites are decorated (perhaps unwittingly) with pagan gods. Indeed, eldest sister Kate, a devout Catholic in a Catholic household fights a persistent battle against (what she perceives as) the encroaching influence of paganism and idolatry. While she is vigilant and impassioned, she is not exactly a tyrant. She barely notices the kites, but forbids her sisters from attending the Lughnasa Festival, most likely because of its pantheistic underpinnings. When Uncle Jack returns from his mission in Africa, and begins to reveal his fascination and appreciation for those vivid, elemental religious practices, Kate’s worst nightmare takes shape. It’s hilarious, but we still understand her concern.
So much genius in Friel’s play. Dancing at Lughnasa mocks easy answers to the quandaries that plague the Mundy Sisters, while making us ache for them. Because we hate to see these vigorous, vibrant women hurting. Friel never leads us by the nose, he’s too subtle for that. But the celebratory nature beneath the travails and mischief, that we see so gloriously expressed in the title event (if only in the Mundy kitchen) leaks and brims and gets beneath our skin. The friction between sober devotion and pagan life-affirmation fuels this exquisitely realized, truly miraculous story of familial grace. Please understand. After years of seeing theatre, I know how difficult it is to capture authentic, overwhelming emotion in a way that actually reaches the audience. And stays with them. Directors Miki Bone and Frank Latson, and this inspired, precise, utterly involved cast have managed to do just that. Tears and mirth and implacable humanity. Do not miss this marvelous opportunity.