The outer world of a rural Irish family in the 1930s squeezes uncomfortably into the tiny stone cottage which five sisters share in Brian Friel’s 1990 drama, “Dancing at Lughnasa,” which continues its Baylor Theatre run through Sunday.
Family love and their Catholic faith have held together the five Mundy sisters — Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose and Chris — in spite of their poverty, but the unexpected return of their brother, Jack, after 25 years as a missionary in Uganda strains their hopes and dreams to the breaking point.
Michael (Carlson Shofner), Chris’ son and the play’s narrator, was a boy in the summer of 1936, the time of the Lughnasa (LOO-na-sa) harvest festival, when Father Jack (Garrett McPherson) comes back, his health and perhaps his Catholic faith, weakened by the experience.
His sisters welcome his arrival, but they begin to take stock of their individual situations when it is coupled with another visit by sweet-talking grammophone salesman, Gerry (Grant Virtue), Chris’ lover and Michael’s father. Kate (HalleyPlatz), the eldest, has the household’s only paying job as a strict schoolteacher. Maggie (Laura Pound) runs the household and keeps everyone’s spirits high. Agnes (Paige Breese) and developmentally slowed Rose (Bailey Harris) knit gloves for extra income, while Chris (Caroline May) is raising Michael and hopeful Gerry returns for good.
“There are five really great roles for women,” director and Baylor graduate student Heidi Breeden said. “They’re all three-dimensional, with something to grab on to.”
Such as how one deals with dimmed future prospects in love or employment, a change in religious faith or seizing fleeting moments of happiness whenever they appear.
“The play doesn’t do a lot of judging. There are crises of conscience and faith, but they’re handled with a careful hand,” said Breeden, adding that Friel’s lyrical way with language shapes a tone that is more graceful than judgmental. “I think it’s really about being OK with things not going the way you want them to.”
Breeden, a 33-year-old North Carolinian, came to Baylor to study directing after five years of teaching high school theater and directing community theater productions. She found teaching rewarding, but her challenges becoming familiar ones. Still, her “Dancing at Lughnasa” brought its own education, at least for her cast, who learned how to speak in an Irish dialect, to knit (at least the Mundy sisters), make soda bread and step-dance.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” runs through Sunday with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Mabee Theatre in the Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center.