In 1995, when Seattle Repertory Theatre first presented Brian Friel’s 1990 Tony-Award winning Dancing at Lughnasa, Seattle audiences hadn’t yet been introduced to the fantastically naked and contaminated Irish characters and storylines from Martin McDonagh (The Lieutenant of Inishmore, A Skull in Connemara, etc). Fifteen years later, post-McDonagh, would the Rep’s revival of Friel’s tender, fiddle-soaked 1930s family drama — a study of bleak endurance and souls gone astray — now feel like some kind of SNL skit?
The answer, thankfully, is No. Under Sheila Daniels’ vivid direction (her Seattle Rep debut), this Lughnasa casts a strong, nuanced spell. From the opening tableau of a rocky yard and house full of frozen characters, the coiled physical energy of this production announces itself brilliantly. Artifice? Hell yes. Wavering? Never!
When narrator Michael (terrifically played by Ben Harris) begins his reminiscence of the summer he met his father and his Uncle Jack, and watched the music from his aunts’ new radio “derange those kind, sensible women and transform them into shrieking savages,” Morris’ eloquence sings out like a melody line over the thrumming physical power of the actors’ poses.
Since Michael’s periodic monologues reveal point-blank plot twists of Lughnasa’s story — the eventual deaths, abandonments, vanishing of family members — the scenes of daily chatter can focus tightly on how the different sisters address their cyclical longings and cope with reality’s changes. As a young child would, Friel gazes intently on the alterations of hourly rhythm: the newly worried voice, the unusual pause, each act of extreme physical expression and grace. And these fine actors deliver those goods.
In the god-awful film adaptation of the play, the wide-ranging sisters were drawn as types. Please: See this production to see the characters restored. Schoolmarm Kate (Mari Nelson) and spicy Maggie (Gretchen Krich) are drawn in rich, pungent colors, and the young Rose (Cheyenne Casebier) is a perfect knot of compliance and revolt. Agnes (Linda K. Morris) has always been the mystery character to me: Morris’ version has a luscious, yielding physical presence but a somewhat confusing breathy voice. Swoony Christine (Elizabeth Raetz) is a hard role, yet Raetz’s sustained visceral intensity is mesmerizing.
As the two lost men who echo all the other broken things around, Father Jack (Todd Jefferson Moore) and Gerry Evans (Troy Fischnaller) also shine with intensity, though their accents are problematic. Fischnaller’s Welsh curl isn’t steady or easy enough at first, though it does seem to improve.
Worse is how Moore’s lilting brogue combines with this interpretation of Jack as bubbly and bumbling at first, then radiantly possessed — he reads as leprechaun-esque. It’s a shame, because in all other ways Moore succeeds in evoking the character with the most ‘dancing’ in him — a soul who does “whisper private and sacred things” and can “be in touch with some otherness.”
The production values could not have been more well-considered and entrancing. Etta Lilienthal's ingenious single set design (featuring house, terraced yard, steep hillside, kitchen) was strongly enhanced by L.B. Morse’s lighting design — one could almost feel the day’s warmth and evening’s slow cool. Constanza Romero created bold, beautiful costumes for all and Paul James Prendergast’s music compositions and sound design cast a seamless aural spell. Triumphant in both style and energy, Daniels’ vision of Lughnasa rebuilds and advances the poetic artistry of Brian Friel’s dear, delicate creation. Catch it while you can.
If you go: Dancing at Lughnasa, Seattle Repertory Theatre, through Dec. 5 at Bagley Wright Theatre, 155 Mercer St.206-443-2222) or online.