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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 26, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 48
Hollow Lughnasa leaves audience unaffected
Arts & Entertainment
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Hollow Lughnasa leaves audience unaffected

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Dancing at Lughnasa
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through December 5


Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel is a memory play. Michael (Ben Harris) is grown now, but tells of a hot summer when he was 7 and his mother and four aunts squeezed together into a small Irish hut and welcomed back his uncle from a years-long journey to Africa to minister to the tribes there. Uncle has come back more heathen than Christian and a bit 'tetched' in the head. Michael's father (Troy Fischnaller) shows up when he pleases and leaves again as fluidly as he comes, leaving promises behind.

Through narration, we learn that this summer is the last they will spend together. Life is pretty grim at the time, with little to eat and not much work to be had. But we also hear more about dramatic times than we see them. Not much actually happens on stage.

The title harkens to the Irish dancing that lifts these sisters' lives up and gives them a bracing dose of good feelings to help them face their bleak existence. In the midst of hardship, still they clear away the kitchen table and ferociously, exuberantly dance. There is a moment near the beginning that does all that, but it fades into a grace note in the background of the rest of the play.

Director Sheila Daniels assembles a wonderful group of talented actors and evokes the sense-memory of the time with a small serviceable house built into craggy Irish hills, designed by Etta Lilienthal, lighting by L.B. Morse that helps divide time, and simple costumes by Constanza Romero. While all those choices are good, somehow the entirety doesn't pull at the heartstrings the way it appears it should.

Michael is present, though only in his adult form, as the characters talk to the boy and the adult answers. The technique is distancing. One can't see a relationship between the boy and the women. It mutes the ability to connect the man to the boy he once was, and his connection to his mother and aunts.

A tenacious and gutsy performance comes from Gretchen Krich as Maggie, the sister who mediates and holds everything together, but also has a streak of untamed wildness in her. Maggie helps ameliorate the harshness of Kate (Mari Nelson), the bossy, rule-bound sister who seems to make the most decisions.

There is Christine, the mother (Elizabeth Raetz), who seems content to long for her handsome fella (Troy Fischnaller) but is unable to fight for her right to his permanent attentions. Indeed, we find from narration that Michael's father has another family, and Michael has a half-brother who contacts him later to say their father has died.

Sister Agnes (Linda K. Morris) knits gloves and takes care of 'simple' sister Rose (Cheyenne Casebier), but we know her job as a knitter is going to be usurped by a knitting factory very soon. The small amount of income they have will end. Rose, played affectingly by Casebier, wants to be in love like her sisters have been, but threatens to hook up with someone who might take advantage of her lack of understanding. We're never told what becomes of them once they leave this sparse but close-knit environment.

Father Jack (Todd Jefferson Moore) has to mend his addled brain, though what happened to addle it isn't clear. His joy, though, in the heathen dances and ceremonies of Africa is in stark contrast to the Christian control that they are all supposed to demonstrate in their sober lives. Perhaps the message has to do with celebrating life by letting go and allowing joyous, unfettered, and less-than-Christian ethos smooth over the tough times, rather than suffer in Christian silence.

There isn't much to take home from the production. Most of it stays onstage and ends up more like a museum piece than an affecting piece of theater. It's hard to determine why, since the production is handsomely done with talented actors. But the most important pieces of the story seem to occur after this slice of life is over. For more information, go to www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.

Comments on reviews go to sgncritic@gmail.com.

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