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Luck of the Irish

“Dancing at Lughnasa”Written by Brian FrielDirected by Sandra ShotwellPresented by the Babcock Theatre and the University of Utah’s Department of TheatreStarring Aaron Adams, Stacey R. Allen, Kelsie Jepsen, Cheryl Nichols, Leah Langan, Laura Brackley, Chris Johnston and Joshua Pierson

Amid the burgeoning industrial progress that nearly crippled parts of the United Kingdom, “Dancing at Lughnasa,” playwright Brian Friel’s almost ample slice of 1936 Irish life chronicles the daily struggles of one modest pre-WWII Irish family, the Mundys.

“Lughnasa” opens in the small Irish village of Ballybeg. The year is 1936, and undercurrents of Spanish unrest have made their way to rural Ireland. Five spouseless sisters, all of whom are younger than 40 years of age, live with their brother, Father Jack (an endearing Joshua Pierson), who has just returned from 25 years in Uganda.

Jaundiced and infected with malaria, Jack is delusional and frail. The Mundy sisters tenderly care for their venerated chaplain, who now chatters on about tribal ritual and its merger into his own Catholic practice.

This fusion of Pagan and Christian ideologies is key, a central motif in “Lughnasa.” At a time in which many Irish hoped that Catholicism would obscure a Pagan past, a Catholic priest is the only character brave enough to embrace his duality.

The sisters, brimming with repressed sexual energy, hang about the kitchen, arguing and dancing (when their temperamental radio works). They also reminisce about boys and festivals past, especially Lughnasa, the harvest festival named for Lugh, the Celtic god of the Harvest.

Kate, (played by the wonderfully curt Laura Brackley) a magisterial sister and classic nag, morally dominates the household. She abhors Pagan tradition, believing that such heresy ought to remain relegated to the hill-people. Her sanctimonious, religious rants elicit shouts from an otherwise stoic and fragile Agnes (aptly played by Cheryl Nichols).

Doubling as cheeky comic relief and slightly crazed cleanup crew, Maggie (Kelsie Jepsen) tries to smooth out all the familial wrinkles with song and spontaneous bouts of dance.

Rose (Leah Langan), clomping about in her galoshes, appears mentally deficient. Langan performs well, but Rose’s character seems to be one of Frel’s afterthoughts. She really serves no discernible purpose.

Chris (Stacy R. Allen) just emanates grumpy listlessness. She only perks up when her sometimes lover, Gerry Evans (a dapper Chris Johnston)-who flew (by night) through town seven years ago, knocked her up, and bolted-shows up to propose marriage.

She rebuffs him, despite his ivory-dealer charm. Gerry hasn’t been around, hasn’t made an effort to see or care for his son Michael (Aaron Adams). Gerry announces that he’s going to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Chris is devastated, and Kate, of course, disapproves of Gerry altogether.

Much tension permeates the Mundys’ countrified kitchen (fastidiously crafted by set designer Peter Willardson and helpers). Complete with creeping vines, foliage, and authentic 1930s props, Willardson’s set drips rustic charm.

The tinny Irish accents, however, do not. Lucky’s lilt is difficult. But if mangled diction distracts from otherwise sterling performances, then perhaps it should be abandoned.

Through the Mundys’ hardships and losses, we can almost vicariously endure the sobering instability of rural Irish life. We sit with them in the kitchen, raptly engaged in divisive quarrels about love, money, and a rapidly dichotomizing culture.

But as we teeter on the cusp of compassionate connection, an arresting literary device severs our bonds. “Lughnasa” conveys huge chunks of story through Michael the narrator’s (Aaron Adams) wistful monologues. These lengthy recollections, though eloquent and insightful, defy the old adage, “show, and don’t tell.”

The audience, craving visual confirmation of the more compelling sub-stories (a character taking to the bottle and dying in the streets, for example), can’t help but long for more.

Fortunately, these technical flaws do not detract from the spectacular cast members, who all gleam like burnished emeralds, and carry well this lamentably meager piece of potato pie.

The Mundys continue their daily drudgeries, quibbling here and there, taking care of a recovering Father Jack. Distressingly, as “Lughnasa” nears culmination, we realize that nothing much has happened.

Only through Michael’s astute, often heart-rending recollections are we apprised of the Mundys’ adventures and posthumous ends.

These long memory purges-especially the epilogue-are far more interesting than the action onstage. The result: an achingly disappointing dnouement (fancy theatre term for ending).

If for nothing else, go to “Dancing at Lughnasa” to steep in the history. Allow yourself to inhabit for one night a pastoral 1930s Irish village.

Imagine it as a drive with friends down a corrugated country road: Sure you’ll hit a few bumps, but the illuminating dialogue and charming company will leave you more than satisfied.

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