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'Dancing at Lughnasa'

When Camelot Theatre decided to produce Brian Friel's Tony Award-winning "Dancing at Lughnasa," director Doug Warner did some homework.

"We looked into Celtic gods, Ugandan masks and deities," Warner says. "We tried to find out what this guy was talking about. Friel is right up there with the greatest Irish writers. He's amazing, and it's not just the language. It's layered metaphor."

"Dancing at Lughnasa" will open Friday, May 2, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, plus a special, pay-what-you-can performance at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 7.

A mix of fantasy, dance, comedy and drama, the play tells the story of the five unmarried Mundy sisters trying to survive in a small rural village in Ireland in 1936. It is the late summertime of the festival of Lughnasa, which celebrates the Celtic god of the harvest with bonfires, drunken revelry and dancing.

Uncle Jack has returned from 25 years of missionary work in Uganda under a cloud, perhaps embracing some pagan beliefs but unable to remember his nieces' names. The sisters' only link to the romance and hope of the world at large comes from the music from an old radio. Further complicating matters is the return of Gerry Evans, father of the illegitimate, 7-year-old Michael and a feckless wanderer.

Time magazine described "Dancing at Lughnasa" as "the most elegant memory play since 'The Glass Menagerie.'" Michael, the narrator, recounts the summer of 1936 in his aunts' cottage when he was 7 years old. But Warner says Camelot is not doing it as a memory play.

"Brian is writing about Michael, who goes back in time to 1936 and tells a story," Warner says. "But it's very sophisticated, and there's no way a 7-year-old would remember."

The way Warner sees it, he's directing a story told by Friel, who took a narrator's tale, who apparently took a little kid's story, and created a mystical tale.

"Our approach is, it's almost impossible to say who conjured up whom," he says.

"Dancing at Lughnasa" looks at life as a series of daily choices how they affect those who choose. Will we choose the mystical or the mundane, joy or just endurance, passion or despair, love or longing? How will we harvest our life before the onset of winter?

When the sisters finally dance to a wild, pagan Irish tune, they embody the core of the human spirit that cannot be vanquished by time or loss, or fully expressed in ordinary language.

Warner says the hardest part of presenting the play was not having the budget to go where he wanted to take it.

"But I have four unbelievable designers," he says. "They mapped out how to push it as far as it could be. What we wanted to avoid was to have just an old Irish guy telling stories about his childhood."

Warner, who also appears as Michael, the narrator, has appeared in several Camelot plays and directed "Sockdology," "The Miracle Worker" and "The Spitfire Grill." Richard Moeschl, arts and entertainment editor for the Mail Tribune and the Daily Tidings, is assistant director and dramaturg.

"Dancing at Lughnasa" features Camelot veterans Priscilla Quinby as Kate Mundy, Linda Otto as Maggie Mundy, Jessica Price as Chris Mundy, Susan Dumond as Rose Mundy, Arlene Warner as Agnes Mundy, Grant Shepard as Uncle Jack and Brandon Manley as Gerry Evans.

A former Broadway actress, Quinby starred as Mrs. Muzzy in "Sockdology," Ouiser in "Steel Magnolias" and Madge in "The Dresser" in 2007. A graduate in theatre and film from UCLA, Otto has appeared at Oregon Cabaret Theater, Artattack and Oregon Stage Works as well as at Camelot Theatre, most recently as Effie in "The Spitfire Grill."

Price recently moved to the Rogue Valley from New York, where she headlined at the St. James Theatre with Billy Crystal. She appeared as Jeannie Gurley in "Sockdology."

DuMond received her B.A. in Theatre from Bennington College in Vermont and studied acting at HB Studio in New York. This is her first performance for Camelot Theatre.

Arlene Warner was previously seen at Camelot Theatre as Her Ladyship in "The Dresser" and as Dr. Judith Kaufman in "An American Daughter."

A former professor of cinematography, television and theater arts, Shepard appeared at Camelot in "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Dresser" and "Fahrenheit 451."

Manley appeared at Camelot as William Ferguson in "Sockdology," Connie Rivers in "The Grapes of Wrath," Daryl in "Shakespeare in Hollywood" and Sidney Purvis in "Meet Me in St. Louis."

The production team is costumer Emily Ehrlich Inget, set designer Don Zastoupil, lighting designer Bart Grady and sound designer Brian OConnor. Bart Grady is the stage manager, Brandon Manley is assistant stage manager, and Tana Watkins runs sound and lights.

"Dancing at Lughnasa" opens Friday May 2 and runs through May 25. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sundays with a special pay-what-you-can performance at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 7.

Tickets are $16 for students and seniors and $18 for adults. Reserved seating is available for an additional $2 per ticket. Tickets are available online at camelottheatre.org, by phone or in person at the theater box office from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and one hour before performances. Call 535-5250.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

The five Mundy sisters in a scene from Camelot Theatre's production of Brian Friel's 'Dancing at Lughnasa.' - Steve Sutfin