Old friends are the best friends. Shortly after I came to the Washington DC area in 1994, I had a chance to portray the irascible S.B. O’Donnell in Brian Friel’s play Philadelphia, Here I Come. I loved the playwright’s impish humor and lyrical lines; his unsparing evocation of life on the margins of sufficiency, where there’s precious little to put away for the rainy day that is surely coming.
Eighteen years later, I’m rehearsing the role of Father Jack in Quotidian Theatre Company’s production of Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. It’s been over twenty years since the play came across the Atlantic, opening in New York on October 24, 1991. It ran for 421 performances the first time around, received eight Tony nominations and three awards (including Best Play), and has since been revived several times and made into a film. The play is generally regarded as Friel’s greatest work.
If you had to put it into a category, you’d call it a memory play. Like Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (with which Dancing at Lughnasa is often compared), it is narrated by a man, no longer young, but reminiscing about the days when he was. Our narrator is Michael Evans, played in this production by David Dubov, who recounts the long-past events of August 1936; in Ballybeg County in Donegal, Ireland, where his (unmarried) mother and her four (also unmarried) sisters do their best to eke out a living of sorts.
Leah Mazade plays Kate, the oldest sister and only substantial wage-earner, who worries about everything and manages everyone in sight; Stephanie Mumford is Maggie, the joker of the family, who has long talks with the imaginary young Michael and treats every meal as an opportunity for culinary flights of imagination, even as she realizes the larder is painfully sparse; Laura Russell is Agnes, who earns a pittance knitting gloves at home and yearns for a love she dares not name; Rose, played by Alyssa Sanders, finds endless ways to worry her sisters as she flirts with forces far beyond her control; and Christina, played by Rebecca Ellis, has produced son Michael, our narrator, without benefit of marriage to Gerry, the dapper Welshman played by Doug Krehbel who appears infrequently on his way to yet another life-changing adventure.
The story is quiet and episodic, but there is relief from the daily grind: music from the quirky, unpredictable radio; Maggie’s puckish, subversive humor; the inscrutable surprises that Father Jack comes up with from his “gone native” days in Africa; the unexpected appearances and grandiose pronouncements of Gerry, the conqueror of worlds yet unseen; and, whenever all else fails, there is dancing – dancing of every kind, from ballroom gliding to Cole Porter melodies to reenacted tribal rituals that shock with their earthy intensity.
There are many ways to enjoy this play, for it resonates in every corner of the human spirit. Old friend Brian Friel is in good form here; his dialogue snaps, it moves along; the energy of the dancing, some of which you never saw on any dance floor, draws you in. There is the poignant sadness of the unmarried sisters in a world only sporadically populated by men, who pass through on their way to the next war or the next business venture that can’t possibly fail. And there is the quotidian humor that is the only reliable weapon in the struggle against sameness and despair.
“Quotidian” – that word again. It’s the name of the theatre company. What occurs onstage is not the kind of drama that happens in the lives of superheroes or crowned heads, but could in lives like yours and mine. The Mundy sisters are good, hard-working, pious Irish women, but the work is disappearing, and the religion – at least the kind that their brother the missionary brings back with him – is turning weird. So the sisters have to do what we all do when things turn weird; they cope. Some successfully, others not. They take their chances, and they do their best.
Stephen LaRocque has been active in the greater Washington DC area since 1994 as a performer, director, and playwright. He is a charter member of the Quotidian Theatre Company and has appeared in over twenty Quotidian productions; favorite roles include Willis Toome in Horton Foote’s Talking Pictures, Alfred P. Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion, and Lopakhin in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
Steve has also been writing performance pieces of all kinds, from comedy sketches to full-length plays, since 1976, while simultaneously pursuing a 29-year career as a Navy officer, from which he retired in 2005. (He suspects that may be the only playwright to have had a script produced on board a Navy submarine on patrol) . Three of his recent scripts have seen productions, all by Quotidian: September 11th was a Tuesday (2003), While We Have the Light (2005), and Monday Evening 1942 (2009). In September 2011, he premiered his one-man show, Byline: Ernie Pyle, at the Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival. The show will be reprised on Sunday, April 29, after the matinee performance of Dancing at Lughnasa.
Quotidian Theatre Company’s production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by Craig Mummey, plays through May 20, 2012 at The Writer’s Center -4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda, MD. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, and one additional 2pm performance on Saturday, May 19th. For tickets, call (301) 816-1023, or purchase them online.