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Steve Feeney

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Posted: November 10, 2014

The Originals present ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ at Saco River Theatre

Written by: Steve Feeney
“Dancing at Lughnasa" courtesy photo

“Dancing at Lughnasa” courtesy photo

One of the dictionary definitions of dancing is “to move up and down or about in a quick or lively manner.” The Mundy sisters of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” have that down pretty well. But, as Friel writes, they don’t stop there. They take it all the way to “near-hysteria.”

The Original’s new production of the 1992 Tony Award-winning play recounts the joys and sorrows of five unmarried sisters in rural Ireland. This haunting story of dreams and heartbreak is told through the memories of the son of one of them who witnessed it all as a seven-year-old child. The wonder of this two-hour (including intermission) play lies in how Friel was able to bring each of the characters so fully to life with relatively few lines of dialogue and narration.

Ian Carlson, as the adult child narrating the story of his family as they were in the late-summer of 1936, speaks early in the play of a “sense of unease” that manifested itself as the fall approached and their meager livelihoods were threatened by economic changes and the arrival of a controversial uncle, a priest back from missionary work with a case of malaria and a taste for “pagan” beliefs. The arrival of the boy’s irresponsible father further complicates things as passions flare.

It took a little while for the ear to adjust to the accents and voice levels of the performers on Sunday. In the end, though, the performance settled-in as the fine writing took hold through good acting played out in a detailed set divided between a period kitchen and a yard with vine-covered faux stone walls.

Laura Houck, Jennifer Porter, Elisabeth Hardcastle, Casey Turner and Francesca Jellison play the sisters. Under the direction of Dana Packard, each became a complete character through posture and movement as much as words.

Houck was able to embody both the “nag,” as her character Kate is called, and the softer, caring older sister underneath. When the other sisters break into a wild dance to Celtic music on the radio, it obviously delighted the large matinee crowd when Kate cut loose as well.

Porter, who also provided the set, costume and sound designs as well as choreography for the production, is a singer of some repute. She was able to very naturally have her Maggie break into song as the inspiration struck. Her romanticism was shared by Turner’s Chris, the mother of the “love child” Michael and paramour of the feckless Gerry, played by Packard. Turner’s scenes with Packard were very good at showing both the power and hopelessness of their attraction for each other.

Hardcastle and Jellison play the sisters who knit gloves to sell and also harbor dreams of romance. Hardcastle lets her character’s heart emerge gradually as she finally got to dance with Gerry. Jellison had some fine comic moments as her Rose knows what she wants but struggles with the propriety expected from Kate.

Paul Haley, as the priest who believes in “ceremonies” not endorsed by the Pope (as Kate points out), was at his best as a character lost somewhere between being too much and not quite enough himself. It was a confusing and dangerous time in the history of Ireland and the world and this play touches a lot of those bases on personal levels through the characters.

The magical days of the Mundy’s last summer together come and go once again at the little theatre on the banks of the Saco River as narrator Michael goes on to reveal the fates of his aunts, uncle, mother and father. It would be surprising if this play doesn’t call to mind for some, a brief but unforgettable time in their own lives.

The Originals present “Dancing at Lughnasa”

WHERE: Saco River Theatre, 29 Salmon Falls Road, Bar Mills
REVIEWED: Nov. 9; continues through Nov. 15
TICKETS: $22 to $25, Nov. 13 is pay-what-you-can
INFO: 207-929-5412; sacorivertheatre.org

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