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Dancing at Lughnasa: five sisters, five personalities, one house

Photo Credit: Tim Matheson

Dancing at Lughnasa tells the story of five Irish sisters fending for themselves in their very Catholic Baile Beag ("Little Town").

It is a semi-autobiographical story of playwright Brian Friel’s childhood when his aunts, the five Mundy sisters, all lived under the same roof in County Donegal. 

Friel appears in the character of five-year-old Michael, played by BFA acting student Alen Dominguez. Alen voices the thoughts of the child while standing to the side, appearing to be an imaginary person to the audience. It was a bit confusing at first as to why the sisters weren't looking at him as they addressed him, but as the story unfolded it made perfect sense. 

Alen also acted as the narrator throughout the play, filling in the gaps of the story and navigating the direction of the play. 

The character development of the five spirited sisters is the main piece of the story as you learn a bit about each of them through their interactions with one another. They find themselves in situations that challenge the conventions of the community they live in while showing the hierarchy within the family. One such example is their almost collective decision to dance in the pagan harvest festival, Lughnasa. After a wild session dancing on and around the kitchen table to their radio named Marconi, Agnes decides that they should go to the dance. This love of dance and their desire to fight their "too old to have fun" image, spurs a heated argument, and some broken hearts. 

While the plot is quite slow and there is only one set in the entire play, it is the relationships between the characters that shows strength. 

I particularly enjoyed Maggie's relationship with Michael, offering him silly riddles and saying that she "may as well be talking to a turdstack" when her comments warrant no response. 

The relationship between Chris and Michael's father is complicated with his unreliable and absent ways that leave her hopeful with his empty promises. As they dance around the property, with or without music, you can see her love for him perseveres through the lonely months without him. "Her face completely alters when she's happy," states Kate as she looks at the two with contempt. 

Kate acts like a mother to the other sisters, keeping them in line and behaving in a Catholic manner. As the only fully employed one in the family the heavy weight on her shoulder increases as Uncle Jack returns from Uganda with memory loss and physical disability. Jack went to a leper colony in Uganda as a missionary to convert the people but wound up embracing paganism to the disdain of his sisters. He brings a light-heartedness to the play with his excited personality and his rambling stories about experiences in Uganda.

If you're looking for a light-hearted play about family drama with a cast of decently held Irish accents then this is your play. Cleverly scripted it will keep you entertained and even laughing out loud at times. 

For more information about Dancing at Lughnasa visit the UBC Theatre website. 

Dancing at Lughnasa 
Runs Nov. 15th - Dec 1st 
Frederic Wood Theatre
University of British Columbia
Tickets: $22/$15/$10/$2

The Cast (BFA Acting Students)

The Mundy Sisters were played by Courtney Shields (Maggie), Georgia Beaty (Anges), Emma Johnson (Michael’s unmarried mother, Chris), Pippa Johnstone (Rose) and Tracy Schut (Kate). Michael's father, Gerry, was played by Matt Reznek while Kenton Klassen played Uncle Jack.

About Brian Friel

Brian Friel is a dramatist, author and director of the Field Day Theatre Company in Ireland. Hailed as the ‘voice of Ireland,’ Friel has written over thirty plays in a six-decade career, winning several Tony Awards, the Laurence Olivier Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

About Director John Cooper

MFA Directing alumnus John Cooper has directed over 130 productions at theatres across Canada. Credits locally include the Arts Club Theatre’s production of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel and the Vancouver Playhouse’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. He is a three-time Jessie Richardson Award winner for Outstanding Direction. John is a freelance director and teaches stage directing as an adjunct professor for Theatre at UBC.

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