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THEATER REVIEW : 'Dancing at Lughnasa' Reflects on Poor Family's Bitter Harvest : Director Pope Freeman captures the feeling, compassion and simplicity of Brian Friel's haunting drama.

March 10, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The unreliable antique radio in the Irish country house is a source of both joy and frustration for the impoverished family in Brian Friel's haunting drama "Dancing at Lughnasa."

The tubes sputter to life only intermittently, and for a few brief minutes at a time pierce the deadening haze of lives mired in convention with a musical invitation to join in life's most sacred mysteries--the wordless ceremony of the dance.

Yet it's a measure of the play's greatness that the symbolic weight of that flaky radio is never obtrusive. It's just another of the telling details drawn from the author's childhood memories, so skillfully woven into the fabric of the piece that its significance emerges only on reflection.

Reflection is an important part in experiencing this retrospective family portrait of a boy raised by five sisters, set just before the summer harvest in 1936.

As Friel's adult narrator (and obvious alter-ego), Michael (Richard Hoag), quickly informs us, that harvest would prove a bitter one. His abrupt disclosure of the outcome, and of the forces that tore his struggling family apart--a rigid matriarch, a dying uncle, an economy upended by industrialization and the unheeded call of the pagan heart of life--force us to pay attention to the implications of their sadly unlived possibilities.

We can be grateful that in staging the central coast premiere of "Dancing at Lughnasa" for the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group, director Pope Freeman captures so well the delicacy of feeling, boundless compassion and eloquent simplicity that make this one of the great plays of our time.

Hoag's narration supplies an understated, heartfelt commentary on a period of transition that even at age 7 Michael recognized with "some awareness of a widening breach between what seemed to be and what was, of things changing too quickly before my eyes, of becoming what they ought not to be."

There are no villains in the piece--not even the boy's unmarried father (Keith Harrop), a roving Welsh charmer who drops in from time to time for a few flirtatious moments with Michael's mother before embarking on a fanciful new escapade.

With an acceptance born of hard-won realism, Michael's mother, Chris (Leslie Ann Pesta), still savors these brief visits, joining him in romantic dances in the front yard without the expectation of anything more.

Her tolerance deeply chagrins her strict elder sister, Kate (Meredith McMinn), a schoolmarm spinster who runs the household according to the strict tenants of church doctrine. Ironically, religious dogma is precisely what keeps them from participating in a true religious experience, represented in the pagan ritual celebration of Lughnasa (accent on the first syllable, i.e., LOON-a-sa), which Kate forbids the family to attend.

For a few glorious minutes, that impulse erupts anyway in an outburst of frenzied dancing (splendidly choreographed by J'Amie Morrison) triggered by--what else?--that temperamental radio. Even the prim and proper Kate joins in.

The other sisters are also well-cast--Juliaine Lyons as the playful extrovert, Laurel Lyle as the secretive, repressed rebel, and ClaireMarie Ghelardi as the dim-witted innocent.

The only weak link is Chris Karys, who lacks the fragility needed for Uncle Jack, a former African missionary in failing health whose Christian faith has been scrambled with tribal rituals.

But the few lapses are only distractions in this powerful evocation of a master dramatist's memory, where "atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory."

Details

* WHAT: "Dancing at Lughnasa"

* WHEN: Through March 19, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2 pm.

* WHERE: Garvin Theatre, 721 Cliff Drive in Santa Barbara.

* COST: $12-$14.

* FYI: For reservations or further information, call (805) 965-5935

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