Remembering Brian Friel and Reviewing UNL’s Dancing at Lughnasa

On October 2nd, we lost one of the most iconic Irish playwrights. Brian Friel died at age 86, as reported here by The Irish Times.

UNL's Dancing at Lughnasa runs Oct. 8-9 & 13-17 at 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 11 and 18 at 2:00 p.m. in the Temple Building's Studio Theatre.
UNL’s Dancing at Lughnasa runs Oct. 8-9 & 13-17 at 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 11 and 18 at 2:00 p.m. in the Temple Building’s Studio Theatre (2015).

Three days beforehand, I was granted permission to attend the final dress rehearsal of one of his best-loved plays at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I’m grateful to the Johnny Carson School of Theatre & Film, general manager Julie Hagemeier and the lovely house manager, Emma Gruhl, for arranging a seat that not only let me see the show, but pay tribute to an important theatrical voice.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play set in fictional Ballybeg village, in the home of an unmarried mother and her sisters during August of 1936. Michael, the child born out of wedlock, narrates for us as a grown man, guiding us through his childhood. Overall, the play is a mesmeric examination of family, love and faith, along with the powers of reflection.

But more importantly, as UN-L’s production captures under the direction of Laura Lippman, Dancing at Lughnasa is about finding the times to toss aside those worries – family, love, even faith – and revel in the joy of life.

Lippman’s show has struck a harmony between moment and memory. Both performers and designers fashion a world of poetic realism, appropriately reminiscent of Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie, which Friel drew inspiration from while crafting Dancing. But these artists are students, and while a good bit of talent takes the stage in this black box production, it is at times clear that not all of the potential is ripe just yet.

Now, before I start unpacking critiques and observations, please remember; this wasn’t a true performance. I saw the final dress rehearsal, and one of those oft-unspoken rules in theatre is a bad final dress makes for a stellar opening. (There are no unspoken rules in theatre, because nobody working in the industry seems to know how to stop talking about it.)

Also, Friel’s story isn’t hurt for the flaws in this show. Some things work well, and some don’t. Some actors are strong, and others aren’t there yet, but on the whole what matters is the heart of this show. The most captivating moments are those when the girls are lost in dancing, and those revels aren’t marked by the precision of their steps or whether they stay on beat. It’s marked by the raw joy Lippman springs from the cast in what, just six days before opening, became a memorial and a thank you to the departed playwright.

Now back to Ballybeg, which meets your ear before it hits your eye. Sonia Sandoval’s charming sound design offers a friendly and authentic Irish tone, and as eyes meet Kaitlyn Peterson’s cottage-skeleton set, we’re given the light, poverty-with-a-smile feel of the Mundy family before they’ve stepped into the light.

UNL's Dancing at Lughnasa set design, Brian Friel - Matthew Stoffel
A pre-show shot of the set, designed by Kaitlyn Peterson and arranged in the round.

The set, sound and Sheric Hull’s lights blend well throughout the show. Hull keeps the changes subtle unless the action lets him throw on some flair, and the gorgeous ivy-kissed ceiling frame of the cottage roof gives him all the play he could hope for. It’s not easy staging a show in the round, but it may be even harder to light it, and my retinas are pleased Hull met the challenge.

Unfortunately, the round may have hurt the set’s logic. Dialogue implies all the sisters live in this house together, and it’s just one room without a mattress or pillow in sight. But dismissing that, it’s a gorgeous playing space, consisting of the Mundy cottage floor without walls or ceiling. A naked doorframe with nothing on the hinges, a hanging window and dangling mirror illusion the boundaries, and the entirety has a muted tone that made the lighting and Megan Cudd’s costume design all the more gorgeous.

Costumes delivered character and time effectively, and the actors wore them well. There’s little more frustrating to an actor than putting on a costume that seems at odds with the character you’ve built, and nobody seemed to struggle with that here. Which is good, on the whole, though the pink dress and ribbon-in-the-hair for Rose, played by Emmalee Allen, seemed to encourage her strangely youthful portrayal of a sister six years older than Michael’s mother.

Lippman’s blocking made effective use not only of the cottage but the surrounding grounds. I rarely felt I was looking too long at anyone’s back, and if I did, I found something to keep me engaged.

Usually, this “something” was Abby Uecker’s portrayal of Agnes. While the second oldest sister is probably most accurately called a secondary character to the pious Kate (Jesse Debolt) or Michael’s mother, Chris (Brenna Hill), Uecker gave the most involved performance, bringing a depth that may make me remember Agnes as the lead. She remained unshaken from the scene’s focus even when, in a gleeful bout of dancing, her bun was snagged by a mess of yarn, or when she accidentally toppled miniature Jesus face-first into the tapletop (In Catholic fashion, Uecker reset the crucifix and fired off the sign of the cross to beg forgiveness).

Thomas Boyle also stood out as Jack the older brother of the five sisters, a priest relearning English after switching to Swahili for the better part of 20 years. His thoughtful, fun character provided great offset to Debolt’s Kate, and she was at her best when nagging him. (“Nag? That’s not a word, it is?”)

Hill improved throughout the show, seeming to be a more seasoned performer by act two. In fact, every performer seemed to gain steam as the show went on; perhaps at first they were surprised to see nearly every seat full – along with me, several students in a theatre appreciation class had gotten in on this preview.

But maybe what best marked the dissonance in performances was an unfortunate tendency among some cast members to slip into a declarative style of line delivery. While performers like Boyle and Uecker were navigating between conversational tones and heavy emotions, others often got stuck straddling the space in-between, and Friel’s words lost their weight.

UNL's Dancing at Lughnasa set, Brian Friel, Laura Lippman - Matthew Stoffel
Another shot of the set, lazily taken from the exact same chair.

For instance, Trey Martinez held attention as Michael with his bright monologues, but in scenes where he spoke on behalf of his younger self, lines sustained a level of reflection too sweet to be bittersweet. More variety could have textured the story, and the same could be said for Hill’s first meeting with Spenser Stokes as Michael’s father, Gerry. Both actors are capable in their own right, but here they lacked the tension of former lovers and separated parents. They pick it up as the show goes on, and once Agnes is in the mix they’re riveting, but the chemistry sputtered before firing up.

Another difficulty among the cast were the accents. Most were consistent, but few captured the musicality of Ireland, though I’m sure that’s hard for voice coach Sasha Dobson to inject. Still, hearing one sister sound starkly Scottish was particularly unfortunate, given her siblings chiding her for liking a Scottish boy.

On the whole, the cast and crew should be proud. This was a well derived show, and I’m thankful that the university happened to be doing it when the show could take on this extra meaning.

Brian Friel was a literary voice that we probably can’t ever replace. For that reason, please consider heading to UN-L’s production. There’s no better way to keep a playwright vital than producing their work, and Friel deserves your time and attention, whether in memory to him or just to experience the memories he wrote for us. And the young artists in the black box likely deserve the effort as well, especially if they improve throughout their run the way they advanced throughout their final dress rehearsal.

“And it’s somewhere to go — isn’t it? Maybe that’s the important thing for a man: a named destination — democracy, Ballybeg, heaven.” – Gerry, Dancing at Lughnasa

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