There are times in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ “Dancing at Lughnasa” when the characters are frozen in time, like living statues – blinking mannequins strewn about a gorgeous, rustic diorama so beautiful it’s just waiting to be painted by Brueghel or filmed by John Ford. The problem, though many may disagree with me, is that this production tends to stay a little statuesque even when the action is brought to life. There’s a staid quality to the direction of this 1992 Tony winner that results in an unusually leaden experience at Dramaworks. The characters come across as so distant and occasionally arch that there isn’t a lot to grab onto emotionally; a general sense of prettiness and decorum can only go so far.
Written by Brian Friel, “Dancing at Lughnasa” is a memory play set in a fictional Irish town in 1936, in a summer of relative innocence at the precipice of global change: the industrial revolution and the Second World War loom on the horizon, threatening to dismantle a family’s simple way of life. Friel captures a few tumultuous August days in the Mundy clan of five sisters seemingly destined to grow old in what songwriter Stephen Merritt called “the home for aging spinsters.”
Maggie (Meghan Moroney) is levelheaded, witty and talented with a stovetop; Agnes (Margery Lowe) is a quiet, mousy seamstress; Chris (Gretchen Porro) is an energetic, starry-eyed single mother; and Rose (Erin Joy Schmidt) also sews, but suffers from a developmental disability. Kate (Julie Rowe) is the eldest sister, presiding over her siblings with a fundamentalist Christian hand. They’re joined in convalescence by Father Jack (John Leonard Thompson), their brother, who has been struck with disease and has adopted paganism after a stint helping lepers in Uganda. The action is narrated by the adult Michael (Declan Mooney), 8 years old at the time of the action, who appears occasionally to dispense information and speak the dialogue of his younger self.
Much of the drama, if you can call it that, revolves around the reappearance of Gerry (Cliff Burgess), Michael’s deadbeat father, to woo Chris again and dispense transparently empty promises that he’s going to stick around and buy his son a brand-new bicycle after his volunteering duties in the Spanish Civil War are fulfilled. There is also much time spent on the pagan rituals adopted by Father Jack, and on Rose’s unsettling escape into the arms of a dubious, unseen suitor. But only the latter, as played by Erin Joy Schmidt in a totally controlled exhibition of physical and mental strain, awkwardness and deprivation, connects on a deep emotional level. It’s another fine performance from Schmidt, the kind we haven’t seen from her before, and enlivened with a hunched spine, recurring tics and an appropriate absence of social understanding.
We are also treated to excellent work from Gretchen Porro, who exhibits an infectious radiance through her character’s naivety, even if she has more trouble than anyone else maintaining an Irish accent. Thompson, a Dramaworks regular, is superb as usual, channeling the frustration of a sick man stricken with aphasia. When he arrives onstage for the first time, a veritable pall washes over the audience; he’s like a living specter.
Casting and direction have much to do with the performances that left me wanting more, or wanting something different entirely. Julie Rowe’s Kate still looks younger than some of her sisters even with a gray wig, and aside from one moment I’ll address presently, she never gets past her character’s one note of righteous indignity. Even more curious is Cliff Burgess’ Gerry, his character reduced to that a sprightly leprechaun, an oddly surreal intrusion on an otherwise naturalistic presentation.
Director J. Barry Lewis deserves credit, though, for his moving and exuberant handling of the play’s most famous scene, in which the sisters drop all their inhibitions and dance around and on their dining table to a thunderous Irish jig beaming from a half-broken radio. Everything that’s been pent up in this stifling, severe household comes out, as the sisters hold hands and smack the table and chairs in displays of homemade percussion, while Kate escapes outside to emit a howl of torment – a moment of utter humanness. This time, these characters are decidedly not statues.
"Dancing at Lughnasa" is at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach, through June 16. Tickets cost $55. Call 561/514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.