Family shines at the heart of 'Lughnasa'

Family shines at the heart of 'Lughnasa'

Director Robert Leff says it's OK if people coming to see "Dancing at Lughnasa" at the Majestic Theatre don't know anything about Ireland, its history or Catholicism.

After all, even though the play traces the lives of five Irish sisters, it's ultimately about family, and that's a theme that's universal.

Pronounced "Loo-nus-uh," the award-winning drama, written by Brian Friel in 1990, opens Friday night for a two-week run of performances in Corvallis.

The semi-autobiographical story, about Friel's mother and his aunts, is a memory play told from his present point of view as the adult narrator, Michael Evans (Kyle Norton).

Set in August 1936 in a small cottage outside the fictional village of Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland, the play takes place during the Celtic harvest festival, Lughnasa, which is celebrated in honor of the pagan god, Lugh.

The five unmarried Mundy sisters, Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose and Chris, live together, along with a 7-year-old Michael. He is the illegitimate son of Chris and Gerry (Robert Best), a charming yet unreliable man who comes, usually unannounced, in and out of Chris and Michael's lives.

"The whole play, in a sense, is happening in Michael's mind," Leff said.

Kate (Chris Kastet), the oldest sister and mother figure, is a schoolteacher. She is the only one with a good-paying job. Agnes and Rose (Tresa Bowlin and Gaylen Sinclair) are home knitters and sell their gloves in town. Maggie (Wendy McLaren) and the youngest sister Chris (Accacia Nepote) have no income, but Maggie runs the household and is the most joyous of the sisters. They all have a responsibility within the house and look after Michael.

Their older brother, Jack (Robert McLaren), a Catholic priest, has just returned home from Uganda after a 25-year absence doing missionary work in a leper colony. He is sick with malaria, experiencing memory loss, and has abandoned his faith.

The family struggles with his arrival, because of how they remember him.

"The images they have don't match the reality, and that's a big shock to the sisters and to Michael," Leff said.

Jack's embrace of native religious practices and views causes discomfort in the Catholic household, especially with Kate. An unexpected visit from Gerry with a promise of marriage is also a source of friction among the sisters.

The Mundy family gets its first wireless radio set, and it plays a significant role in the drama, even though the radio works intermittently. The sisters dance whenever the music comes on.

"As Michael says, 'We were obsessed with it,'" Leff said. "The radio brings the outside world into this house."

In the first act, the close-knit sisters work, talk, and joyfully anticipate going to and dancing at Lughnasa.

"Gerry showing up, Jack coming home, and the radio all upset the everyday world of these sisters," Leff said.

The play features lots of dancing, but it is not meant to entertain the audience as in most productions. It is designed to tell the story.

"There is a moment in the show that we watch it (the dancing), and we realize 'oh, this is what's going on underneath the surface of this play,'" he said.

Young Michael isn't portrayed by anyone on stage. The "invisible" character is voiced by Kyle Norton, the narrator, on the side of the stage. This presented a challenge for the cast members who interact with the boy during the play.

Robert Best's 9-year-old daughter, Hannah, served as a stand-in during rehearsals. This helped the three sisters who speak with Michael to prepare as if he were there.

Hannah, who is listed as a special consultant in the program, also painted scary faces on two prop kites that young Michael is supposed to have made early in the play, Leff said.

The cast was also tasked with speaking in various accents.

"The Donegal accent is different from what we associate as the Irish accent," Leff said.

Gerry speaks with a Welsh accent. A disoriented Jack barely has any accent, because he's spoken Swahili for the past 25 years, Leff said.

But Leff didn't want the accents to become too much of a focal point for the play.

"My approach in directing is for the actors to give a hint or flavor of an accent," he said. "I have seen productions where the accents are so authentic, I don't understand what is being said."

Another challenge the five women actors faced was to knit, iron and cook while they perform the dialogue and listen to each other's conversations. Two of them were taught how to knit by choreographer Mishele Mennett. One actor learned how to iron clothes.

"We have the rituals of Catholicism and the rituals of Lughnasa and Uganda, but there are also the rituals of everyday life," Leff said.

Leff believes the play's funny and sad moments will resonate with audience members.

"I hope it invokes memories of their own lives, or people they know," Leff said.

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