Talented ensemble makes Irish memory play 'Dancing at Lughnasa' sparkle at Dramaworks
There's quite a bit of dancing, as the play's name would suggest, in Dancing at Lughnasa, Irish playwright Brian Friel's fragile yet powerful family drama on view at Palm Beach Dramaworks. The dancing erupts unexpectedly – and sometimes fiercely – among the Mundy sisters, five unmarried women struggling to make sense of a world on the brink of seismic shifts in the late summer of 1936, even as they grapple with more intimate conflicts simmering inside their rural farmhouse in County Donegal. In Dancing at Lughnasa, the 1992 Tony award winner for best play, dance is a recurring metaphor, a vivid representation of how the human spirit strives to break free of crippling restraints. It's a challenging conceit, but a successful one in this production. The talented ensemble understands and embraces these characters heart and soul. ...Director J. Barry Lewis obviously understands that this play requires a delicate touch. Shifts in mood are handled gracefully, helped along by Steve Shapiro's evocative sound design and Ron Burn's lighting. Likewise, Brian O'Keefe's costumes are exactly right, as is Jeff Modereger's design of the farmhouse kitchen and yard. Lynette Barkley's choreography is also on point, from floor-busting Irish folk dances to sleeker moves that recall the grace of Astaire and Rogers. ...Much of the plot centers around the relationship between Chris and Gerry, Michael's ne'er-do-well but glibly amiable father. Gerry shows up every year or so at the farmhouse for a visit – and for a romantic dance or two. As Chris, the marvelous Gretchen Porro simply lights up – there's really no other phrase for it – the first time she sees Gerry, and it's hard to take your eyes off of her thereafter. Playing the Welshman Gerry, Cliff Burgess is both engaging and wistful, offering mother and son empty promises that he somehow seems to believe will come true. John Leonard Thompson is likewise terrific as returned prodigal Father Jack, who begins the play in ill health, struggling to find words in his native English, a language he hasn't spoken regularly for years. The priest's evocative recollections of African rituals and tribal dances – and his own role in them – are a riveting reminder that primal forces are human forces, no matter the geography involved.