by Wes Muilenburg
Memory is a peculiar thing. It persists in our brains against all odds. It lets us remember all the highs and lows of childhood and every step along the way. This idea is what unifies the story of Irish playwright Brian Friel’s play “Dancing at Lughnasa.”
Set in the summer of 1936 in Northern Ireland, the play tells the story of five sisters (Kate, Agnes, Maggie, Rose, and Chris) struggling to make ends meet and find joy in life. Their brother, Jack, has recently returned from missionary work in Uganda and suffers from malaria. The play is narrated by Chris’ son, Michael, as he recalls the events of that summer many years later. The sisters are visited by Michael’s father, Gerry, on several occasions throughout.
Since nearly all of the characters are related, the cast spent a lot of time bonding. “There’s a lot of closeness in the cast…it’s like a family,” said sophomore theatre major Abbie Krohn, who played Rose. This intense proximity paid off. The actors developed a strong and intimate rapport that drew the audience into the world of the play. When asked about their favorite part of the rehearsal process, nearly every member of the cast mentioned the bonding.
The two-and-a-half-hour show is unlike anything performed at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul in recent memory. Most of the scenes with Michael, played by Nathan Rouse, a junior music education major, consist of monologues. Rouse described it as a completely “different acting device,” especially when it is necessary to use a consistent Irish accent.
In addition to the prevalence of monologues, the show has relatively little plot. Most of the scenes consist of the sisters talking, dancing, bickering, and laughing. According to Zach Hedner, the junior music and theatre major who played Jack, “the show is so relationally driven that we all had to discover who these characters are to us and how we interact with each other.” The brutal realism of these memories is summarized best in the tiny, unscripted interactions between all of the actors. “You have to listen, you have to respond to others,” said Hedner.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” was the first Northwestern show to be directed by Joy Donley. Donley is a freelance director, producer and teacher with a M.A. in Theatre Education from the University of St. Thomas. She brought a completely fresh perspective to the show. The actors spent plenty of time working on their accents and doing character research. Despite the attention to detail, Donley let the actors develop their characters in their own ways. “She has a vision for the play, but she doesn’t micro-manage in the sense that she allows you to find your own character while still being true to the story,” said Rouse.
Given the minimal plot and reliance on character, it can be hard to see what “point” of the show was. While that may be true on a surface level, there is plenty of meaning buried in the script, characterization, and especially the dancing. The constant dancing furthers the story and emotions in a way the script can’t. The show ends with most of the characters either dead, miserable, or far away from home. Despite this unfortunate end, none of the sisters live with a fear of dying or loss. Krohn summarized the message of the show by saying that “life is short. Don’t live life in a box.”