Pagan-Christian tension throws sparks in 'Dancing at Lughnasa'

November 12, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

In her set for Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" at Washington's Arena Stage, designer Linda Buchanan has created an ideal physical metaphor for the tension underlying this highly poetic Tony Award-winning play.

A cutaway section of the small Mundy family home -- where most of the action takes place -- occupies half of the stage. Above and around the house's jagged walls, tall grass boldly sprouts, as if attempting to reclaim the ground usurped by the tiny dwelling.

And indeed, just as the Mundys' domesticity is threatened by the wild outdoors, so this Christian household is threatened by paganism -- specifically, the ecstatic Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasa and the African rituals admired by Father Jack Mundy, who has returned to Ireland after 25 years as a missionary.

Actually, there isn't a lot of action in this semi-autobiographical script, which takes the form of a memory play narrated by Friel's alter ego, Michael. Lack of action may have contributed to last month's extremely brief Broadway run of Friel's latest play, "Wonderful Tennessee." But in this case, the uneventfulness adds poignancy.

Instead of presenting the eventual, calamitous break-up of the Mundy family -- Michael's unwed mother, his four aunts and their missionary brother -- the play focuses on two ordinary days in the summer of 1936. Friel's lyrical writing, combined with director Kyle Donnelly's evocative staging and Jim Corti's passionate choreography, make these days shimmer with hope. The poignancy stems from the adult Michael's bittersweet realization that this was the last time hope was possible for the Mundys.

Co-produced by Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where it just completed a six-week run, the production features a combined cast, which has blended into an impressively smooth ensemble. As head of the female-dominated household, Tana Hicken's self-righteous Kate has the pinched expression of a woman struggling to maintain control in a world slipping out of her grasp. Michael's mother, Chris, touchingly played by Jenny Bacon, is one sister Kate has never been able to control; it's easy to see why when Michael's wayward father shows up, and Chris' love for him illuminates the actress' entire face.

Kate Buddeke's lighthearted Maggie is the family peacemaker. Blessed with the ability to wash away tears with a riddle or a joke, Maggie draws her sisters into a frenzied dance near the start of the play. The dance is "Lughnasa's" most exuberant moment, but it, too, is tinged with Michael's melancholy knowledge that it was the sisters' final expression of exuberance.

The men in the cast have a tough job competing with the glow of the Mundy girls. Denis O'Hare's Michael comes off a bit drab in comparison, but as Father Jack, the missionary whose superiors feared he was "going native," Arena veteran Richard Bauer has found a wonderfully quirky vehicle for his quirky talents.

In his final monologue, Michael says that in his memory of those days, "atmosphere is more real than incident." That illusive atmosphere has been masterfully captured by this production. At Wednesday's performance it even infected the audience, whose rhythmic applause seemed to mirror the theme of the struggle between civilization and paganism.

"Dancing at Lughnasa"

Where: Arena Stage, 6th and Maine Ave., S.W., Washington.

When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees most Saturdays at 2:30 p.m., selected Sundays at 2 p.m. and selected Tuesdays and Wednesdays at noon. Through Jan. 2.

Tickets: $22-$39.

Call: (202) 488-3300.

*** 1/2

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