Brian Friel’s masterpiece “Dancing at Lughnasa” pinwheels around the lives of five sisters struggling between two wars sans education, parents or men.
The trenches of World War I have swallowed most of Ireland’s eligible bachelors. Eldest sister Kate, a schoolteacher, is the only sibling working. Christina has a child out of wedlock. Rose is what we would today call mentally disabled.
The Adobe Theater is presenting Friel’s memory play as its contribution to the Southwest Irish Theatre Festival April 4-27.
Loosely based on the lives of Friel’s mother and aunts, the piece orbits around several weeks in the late summer of 1936 during the Celtic Harvest Festival of Lughnasa. The five Mundy sisters have welcomed home their brother Father Jack, who has served as a missionary in Uganda for 25 years. Christina’s son Michael narrates the play as an adult.
“It’s a play about courage,” the Adobe’s Leslee Richards said. “It’s a very difficult situation, yet they find peace in simple things – fresh eggs and fresh bread and the warmth of the sun. The music on their little wireless set makes them dance.”
But the harvest is bitter. Jack has contracted malaria and has trouble remembering his sisters’ names. The church shipped him home because he has “gone native.” A fiercely devout Catholic who has assumed the role of mother figure, Kate abhors the local pagan celebrations as well as Jack’s embrace of African spirituality.
Christina’s ne’er-do-well love Gerry returns with no intentions of marriage or commitment to his child. Rose wants to run off with a married man. And change looms in the form of a textile factory threatening the cottage industry of Agnes and Rose, who earn a meager income knitting gloves.
“I don’t think it is so much a tragedy as it is life,” Richards said. “In spite of this lack of support, they love each other and are at peace.”
Throughout the play, Friel pits the church against the family. The fathers have excommunicated Christina for giving birth to an illegitimate child.
“She can barely go into the village,” Richards said.
But the sisters refuse to be driven to despair. Unlike the unseen family of the movie “Philomena,” they choose to embrace Christina rather than send her away to an abbey to work for her keep. Similarly, they take in Jack when the church has rejected him.
Cementing a random group of actors into a family of 40 years has been challenging, Richards acknowledged. Many Americans would have difficulty grasping the extent of the Mundy sisters’ extreme poverty, she added.
Winner of the 1991 Olivier Award for Best Play of the Year, “Dancing at Lughnasa” also won the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play. In 1998 it was adapted for film starring Meryl Streep.