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'Dancing at Lughnasa,' an ancient Celtic celebration

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is the story of sisters who dance with each other, dance with life and dance around problems and pain. It’s a memory play told through the eyes of a small boy, and is a celebration of the joy of the Irish, their peculiar humor and a beautiful, shared tenderness.

Written for the stage by Brian Friel in 1992 and directed by Rick Robinson, Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s artistic director, “Dancing at Lughnasa” opened last week at Collaborative Theatre Project in Medford.

Reality came to visit the small Irish village of Ballybeg that summer, on the cusp of the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasa. It’s 1936 and a radio brings music into the heart and home of five sisters. They aren’t wealthy by any means, but they are rich in spirit, filled with love for each other.

Aggie watches out for Rosie, who needs looking out for, Christina’s a racy redhead who tempts fate for love, Kate’s that old Irish auntie — strict and forbidding, at least most of the time — and dear Maggie stands loving guard over them all.

The women, played by respectively by Meagan Kirby, Sarah Clausen, Haley Forsyth, Renee Hewitt and Lisa-Marie Newton are sisters, true and true, each different, each lovely and each a marvel. They’re my great aunts, the maiden Gillick sisters late of County Meath in the flesh, at odds with each other but crossing themselves and speaking, “rest in peace,” as one.

Hewitt as the older, conservative and Catholic Kate is spot-on. Stiff, angry and tied way too tight, Kate understands the reality of the sisters’ impoverished situation all too well and represents that widening breach between what is and what was and how it is all remembered.

Maggie is mother among the sisters, and as Maggie, Newton never loses her hopeful vision and sense of play; her bright, smiling and empathetic performance is heartwarming. And Forsyth as Chrissy is a delight, warming to her suitor’s charms without good reason and screaming shrilly for her son, Michael.

My heart fell as the character of Agnes was beaten down, Meagan Kirby gradually becoming more still, less hopeful and losing her characteristic bright-eyed, bouyancy as the play progressed.

Sarah Clausen debuts at CTP with “Dancing at Lughnasa” in the role of Rose Mundy. Clausen’s performance is stellar, taking on the affect of a slower child; too quick to love and too quick in speech, Clausen as Rose is victim.

The men of “Dancing at Lughnasa” are not reliable and are on the periphery of the play, yet at its center.

There’s a small boy, Michael, now grown, who returns in memory to the summer of 1936. Justin Waggle has the role and speaks from the sidelines, asking why, recalling actions that year when the boy’s world began to shift and change. The sisters cherish the child, speaking to a boy absent from the stage, a vacant space inhabited by memory. I loved Waggle’s detachment, his sometimes ambiguous responses and occasional confusion and anger as he plays out Michael’s memories and foretells the future of the sisters.

William Coyne is magnificently cast as Father Jack, the brother-priest returned after a long posting to a Catholic mission in Uganda. Coyne’s halting step and voice, his staring eyes and crabbed gestures in the role of Father Jack declare madness to the Catholics, but his words are filled with beloved humanity and community. Father Jack embodies that mysterious primitive paganism filled with rites and rituals and beliefs that seem as real and as enigmatic as those of the Catholic Church and as intoxicating as the Celtic lunar festival of Lughnasa.

Perhaps less effective in the role is Paul Cosca as Gerry Evans, Chrissy’s fickle lover and the absent father of her child, born out of wedlock. Cosca’s performance is blithe and carefree, the character without depth or sympathy, perhaps as intended but less satisfying to watch.

The set and costumes are ’30s drab, in browns and grays and dusty green. The sisters’ shoes are sensible, and the aprons sensibly protect their frocks. Their home is to the left of the stage, and the right of the stage is outdoors, open to the audience with just a bench. There’s an emptiness to the set that gives a feeling of loss because the place where the boy Michael once played is empty, a place where hopes and dreams are cast into the sky but fall to earth as false. So, the set works in the production, but feels unbalanced and the audience on that side of the theater is distant and distanced from most of the play’s staging.

The artwork of 100 Days of Creativity hangs in Collaborative Theatre Project's lobby space. The works are beautiful, multimedia works. Large works and small are detailed, colorful and curious palettes that please the eye and engage the mind.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” continues at CTP in the Medford Center through Sept. 15, with Sunday matinees at 1:30 p.m. Tickets range from $18 to $25 and are available by calling the box office at 541-779-1055 or visiting CTPMedford.org.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

'Dancing at Lughnasa'