Don’t Dance at Lughnasa

In the opening moments of The Glass Menagerie, Tom tells his audience, “The play is memory.”  The same line could be used by Brian Friel in Dancing at Lughnasa, which is narrated by Michael (Michael McMonagle), a man who recalls the summer of 1936 as a cataclysmic time in his life: he would meet his father, Gerry (Kevin Collins), for the first time, and his household, previously dominated by his mother (Annabel Hägg), a senile uncle (John Tyrrell), and a gaggle of aunts, would be reduced to just four.  The group struggles to make ends meet and maintain traditional, Catholic values as a colder, modern world steadily creeps into their domestic space.

But while Tennessee Williams was a first-rate writer, Mr. Friel resorts to burying his work in endless sentiment.  His monologues are bogged down with language that must have at some time looked good to someone, but comes across as mere theatrical masturbation when spoken aloud by real people.  A blaring example is set as Michael watches his mother and father, observing, “This time it was a dance without music; just there, in ritual circles round and round that square and then down the lane and back up again; slowly, formally, with easy deliberation … No singing, no melody, no words.  Only the swish and whisper of their feet across the grass.”  This image is apparently too good to be wasted, and is recycled right before the curtain, when Michael becomes even more nauseating: “Dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell.  Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement … Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements.  Dancing as if language no longer existed because words were no longer necessary.”  The fact that he ends a monologue as bloated as this one with the line “words were no longer necessary” seems totally lost on Michael.

Obviously, then, not much can be expected of a cast and crew working with this material.  Still, they do the best they can.  In the original production, Michael appeared only for the narration, with a child actor playing him in flashback.  Here, however, director Charlotte Moore has Mr. McMonagle take on both the young and the old, giving the production a bittersweet, melancholic effect as he relives his memories.  Indeed, since he has already informed us of the fate of all these characters, the tragedy of their situation is nicely accented in his knowing face, passively watching his relatives fight a battle that he knows will inevitably be lost.  Mr. Collins, too, does a fine job of balancing the genuineness and the roguishness of Gerry, while Aedín Moloney (Aunt Rose), with her pinched, bird-like face, manages an amiable performance as the most oblivious and optimistic member of the house.

Unfortunately, nothing can save Dancing at Lughnasa from its unyielding falseness.  It is as if Mr. Friel has assembled the components of a memory play without realizing why they belong there, as if he is a young man writing a memory play about a specific but foreign experience, with the inflated metaphors compensating for an insubstantiality.  Even the Irishness doesn’t seem right; it just serves as an excuse for being trite and saccharine.  The end result is humorless and without a trace of irony.  Stay away.

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