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In Step With the Team

Yes, she's Meryl Streep, superstar. But she's also an ensemble player, at home and in the film 'Dancing at Lughnasa.'

November 08, 1998|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a frequent contributor to Calendar

DUBLIN, Ireland — For almost two decades now, Meryl Streep has been the dominant female presence in almost every film in which she has appeared. She assumes starring roles as if to the manner born; it's hard to recall a time when she was anything but a lead actress.

Back in the 1970s, of course, it wasn't so. Streep spent three years at the Yale School of Drama and appeared onstage in Shakespeare, Shaw and Tennessee Williams--and not always in lead roles. After graduating, she enjoyed a spell with Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York City. She learned her craft, then, in the democratic, anti-star system of a stage background.

So there's a case for claiming that she is returning to her roots in her new film "Dancing at Lughnasa." In this story, set in Ireland, there is no single starring role, but five female parts of virtually equal prominence.

Streep, 49, pondered long and hard about the status conferred by different acting roles the morning after the world premiere of "Dancing at Lughnasa" at a Dublin movie theater, followed by a black-tie charity dinner for 300 guests at the Irish capital's historic castle.

She looked in fine spirits, as well she might: After a slight downturn, her career is on the upswing. Streep recently starred in the sophisticated weepie "One True Thing" as a mother dying of a terminal illness; critics and audiences have enthused, and Oscar talk is in the air.

And now comes "Dancing at Lughnasa," the stage play by the great Irish dramatist Brian Friel, adapted for film by another Irish playwright, Frank McGuinness ("Someone to Watch Over Me"). It is about the five Mundy sisters, spinsters eking out a poor living in a cottage near the Donegal village of Ballybeg in the 1930s.

Only the stern, proper teacher Kate (Streep) has the education to hold down a true job. Agnes (Brid Brennan) and simple-minded Rose (Sophie Thompson) earn a few pennies knitting gloves. The beauty among them, Christina (Catherine McCormack), has a young son born out of wedlock; cheerful, bawdy Maggie (Kathy Burke) scrapes to keep the household together. To cap their troubles, their beloved brother, Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest, has returned from missionary duties in Africa muddled and full of doubts about his Catholic faith.

Clearly, then, the independently financed "Dancing at Lughnasa" is an ensemble piece. It is also a relatively cheap film--less than $11 million, according to its Irish-born director, Pat O'Connor. O'Connor felt Streep would have to be wooed for the part, for she would receive far less than her normal fee. After she responded warmly to McGuinness' script, O'Connor sent her speech tapes of ordinary Donegal people, and CDs of Irish traditional music. "I know she gets interested in that stuff," he said. "She looks for something to stimulate her in a role." It worked.

O'Connor wanted to start rehearsals on a Monday, and Streep flew into Donegal from the States only the day before. "I thought, 'Here we go, it'll be a Tuesday start now,' " he recalled. "Meryl got two hours' sleep, but come Monday morning she was first to arrive, and extremely well prepared."

In fact, it was the ensemble nature of the work that persuaded Streep to take the part. "I was interested to see if I could sweep in like this big American star and fit my huge, ungainly presence into an ensemble," she said wryly. "Would the other actors accept me? But, of course, it was the easiest thing in the world. Other actors know you have to get rid of all that baggage. It was like coming home. They were divine to me." The collegial work on "Dancing at Lughnasa," she said, recalled her days as a stage actress.

So why hasn't she done this kind of work more often? One assumes she has the pick of film roles for women her age. Maybe she does, but her strong sense of family imposes its own restrictions. She has been married to sculptor Don Gummer for 20 years, and their children--Henry, Mamie, Grace and Louisa, now 18, 14, 11 and 6--take precedence over her career.

"I haven't worked in theater for 17 years," she noted. "And that's entirely because I have four children and can't be gone every night and all weekend. That's when they are home."

Her last play was another ensemble piece: "Taken in Marriage," at the Public Theater. "It lasted five weeks and it was fun, but I had an 18-month-old son, and we had two shows Saturday and two on Sundays. I thought, 'Well, I'm going to have to give this a rest for a while.' And then I never imagined I'd have so many children." A wintry smile. "Oh yes, everything is so finely calculated!"

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