Costa Mesa Playhouse kicks off its next season with the moving and powerful Irish classic
By Libby Nicolay
It is no secret that the Irish have a tendency toward melancholy. Years of political strife and strict religious oppression across history has raised up a nation of stoics, made evident by their defining stories of endurance and tradition. Irish playwright Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” is no different. In this 1990 classic – playing October 28 through November 20 at Costa Mesa Playhouse – memories painted of an earlier, happier time will allow audiences a window into the delicate life of an ordinary family in 1930s Ireland.
“Dancing at Lughnasa,” set in the north of Ireland in 1936, follows the five unmarried Mundy sisters - Kate, Maggie, Christina, Rose, and Agnes - who live together in a small village cottage. Their brother Jack has just returned from a missionary trip to Uganda and is sick with malaria to the point of delirium. Kate, a teacher, is the only sister who works outside the home, yet all of the sisters remain unrequited in their desperate search for love and fulfillment. The family begins to fall apart due to outside forces, touching on themes of societal expectation, the effects of poverty, and religion.
The play is told as a series of memories from the adult eyes of Michael, the illegitimate son of Christina who was seven years old at the time. As adult Michael recounts one misfortune after the next from this one devastating summer way back when, he looks back on his early influences during a time that would later become the last period of stability in his aunts' lives before everything changed. Michael’s character is loosely based on Friel himself, who grew up with his mom’s seven unmarried sisters in the north of Ireland and considers the play semi-autobiographical.
In addition to the life changes brewing within the Mundy home, there are symbolic changes taking place around them as well. The story is set during a time when war and revolution were on the country’s horizon. Ireland’s new constitution is being finalized. Poverty starts to plague the Mundy family in response to the rise of the country’s industrial revolution. The Irish Catholic church at the time was also strictly repressing women and anything it considered immoral, like families that don’t meet the traditional Catholic standards, or like dancing. Dancing becomes hugely symbolic to these sisters. When they aren’t able to express themselves freely, dancing becomes their freedom, their femininity, and their voice.
In order to capture all of these small, but mightily important details and bring nuance to the production, director Kathy Paladino usually starts with a thorough history lesson. She notes that even the little things like gestures and posture can be informed by generations of world history. “Running across phrases we don’t understand, things they say that we don’t understand, it's the perfect opportunity to go look historically and look at how this was and how it happened,” she explains.
Piecing together the full context of the play brings relatability to the characters and allows the actors to fully immerse themselves by tethering to the familiar pieces of Irish culture we all know. Paladino believes local audiences won’t have to look very far at all to find the family’s common humanity.
Paladino also noted some other challenges that come with doing a play from another time and place. One is making sure the actors’ Irish accents are accurate and altogether consistent. Like in other English languages, Irish dialects are separated by region and can often be indicative of social or economic status, so mastering an accurate dialect with the right specificity will be the key to fully immersing audiences into the Mundy family’s world.
Memory plays are unique in that they highlight the way our fickle memories can often define what is true about history and what isn’t, and how much trust we must put in who is telling our stories. With time, memories fade and the missing pieces begin to change. Paladino points out how often Michael uses the word “sense” instead of memory, implying that his memory of these events may not be as accurate as we’d hope to believe, and perhaps they’re even fictional. But the truth doesn’t always lie in fact. The order of events from 1936 doesn’t change the impact that these sisters had on their young nephew’s life. Eventually, the facts of our own lives will fade away until all that will be left is our happiness.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” is a great example of the way a region’s social and political histories can be seen through the eyes of its people, and especially its art. Paladino sees a dichotomy that is often present in Irish sensibilities, but one that we can certainly feel inspired by. “It’s hard to find a happy Irish piece of literature,” she said. “But having said that, there’s always a joy of life involved, despite the circumstances.”
Hardship may be out of our control at times, but it brings us closer to one another if we let it. The Mundy family must learn the hard way how to endure and how to find those small, life-giving moments of beauty through tough times. They teach us that, even through the toil of life’s heaviness, there is still room to dance.
Libby Nicolay is a writer, literary manager, and local theater enthusiast working in the entertainment industry throughout Orange County.
‘Dancing at Lughnasa’
Costa Mesa Playhouse
661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa. CA 92627
October 28 - November 20, 2022
(949) 650-5269, www.costamesaplayhouse.com