Absorbing 'Lughnasa' kicks up its heels

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Want a memorable night under the stars? (Yes, you can still actually see a few stars overhead from downtown Oak Park.) Pack a hamper and head over to Austin Gardens, just north of Lake Street on Forest Avenue, and enjoy the wonderful new Oak Park Festival Theatre production of Dancing at Lughnasa.

Brian Friel's richly textured work, which received the Tony Award for Best Play in 1992, is based on the playwright's own past. Friel is often called the "Irish Chekhov" and this work, regarded as his masterpiece, is presented here with passion and poignancy.

I've seen Lughnasa several times but this production, directed by Belinda Bremner, maintains a strongly emotional atmosphere. Friel's engaging work is perfectly suited to Festival's talented ensemble. Bremner culls top-notch performances from her actors.

This is not simply some nostalgic tale of growing up in rural Ireland. Yet it is a "memory play" that projects backwards to the late summer of 1936. We meet the five unmarried, unfulfilled Mundy sisters who live in a small cottage in rural Donegal. Nothing huge ever happens. The sisters knit gloves, feed the chickens, pick blackberries. But we are immediately drawn into their on-going conflicts of sibling love and jealousy, responsibility and propriety.

The play opens with a monologue by Michael (Brian Simmons), who had been a 7-year-old back in 1936. Now, haunted by that long-ago summer, Michael looks back from an adult vantage point. His memories frame the story of the band of Mundy sisters' last summer together.

The oldest of them is Kate (Mary Mitchell), a repressed, bossy teacher in the parish school. Since she's the only sister who's a consistent breadwinner, she's also very critical of the others, sternly riding herd over them.

Irreverent, big-hearted Maggie, the homemaker and family joker of the brood, is played by Barbara Zahora.

Lonely, moody Christina (Jhenal Mootz), the youngest of the Mundy sisters, is the mother of an illegitimate child, the 7-year-old boy. She still carries a torch for her son's father even though the fly-by-night rogue had deserted her when she got pregnant and now only comes around every few years.

Eccentric, simple-minded, yet romantic Rose (Lydia Berger) moons for a married man.

Agnes (Martha Murphy) always sits quietly knitting, yet she's also Rose's keeper. The two are a pair of worker bees.

The sisters' brother Jack (Donald Brearley), a Catholic priest who spent his life working as a missionary in a leper colony in Uganda, is now back home with his siblings, physically broken and mentally confused. He may have lost both his mind and his faith. Jack's now obsessed with the pagan ways of Africa.

Though we never see the ceremonial dancing around tribal fires that Father Jack excitedly describes, it's mirrored in the surviving annual pagan harvest Festival of Lughnasa (Loo-na-Sa). Drunken revelry also takes place around huge bonfires in the hills not far from the Mundy sisters' tiny farm.

We also never actually see 7-year-old Michael. His mother and aunts talk to the imaginary child, while the grown-up narrator stands off to the side and comments on the action, like Tom in Glass Menagerie or the stage manager in Our Town.

Despite their meager circumstances, little Michael seems to have been surrounded by love. The sisters all dote on him.

Michael's biological father, a charming but unreliable Welsh vagabond named Gerry Evans (Dennis Grimes), pays one of his infrequent visits, brightening Christina's spirits but causing rigid Kate to fume and sputter. While Chris joins Gerry dancing to radio music in the garden a la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, sex-starved Maggie watches wistfully from the window. Agnes (who clearly, secretly adores the young man) knits feverishly while unyielding Kate buries herself in her newspaper.

Gerry wants to join the International Brigade, the idealistic youth corps that was going off to fight against dictator Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Mussolini and Hitler were sending troops and planes to assist the Fascists in the conflict, which was like a dress rehearsal for World War II.

The meticulous Irish accents sound authentic but frankly seem an unnecessary distraction. The first few minutes of the play are frankly disorienting until you grow used to the thick brogue and begin to comprehend what's being said.

Robert W. Behr is the stage manager. The choreographer is Martha Murphy.

I'm told the scenic designer is not the individual listed in the program, printed a while ago. Whoever it is did a fine job creating a lived-in-looking cottage with one wall cut away to reveal the intimate Mundy kitchen. Much action also takes place in the garden just outside. The realistic, well-dressed set contains everything from holy cards and religious art to a full cupboard of dishes and cooking implements.

Kyle Irwin's sound design includes a wonderful assortment of '30s hit parade swing music played both before the curtain and during the intermission, ranging from "The Object of My Affection" and "Goody-Goody" to "Happy Feet" and "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie."

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