WELLESLEY — Memory plays require a dreamy atmosphere delicately blended with a few sharply defined details. The Wellesley Summer Theatre Company’s lovely production of “Dancing at Lughnasa” reaches that threshold and surpasses it, with an ensemble that embodies all of playwright Brian Friel’s tenderness for his fragile characters.
Our narrator, Michael (Will Bouvier), takes us back in time to the imaginary Irish village of Ballybeg, County Donegal, in the summer of 1936, when he was a young boy surrounded by his mother and aunties, and life was full of possibilities. The Lughnasa of the title is the Celtic harvest festival, a celebration of bounty before winter sets in — apt for this moment of joy before deprivation engulfs the family.
The five vividly drawn Mundy sisters are at the center of young Michael’s universe: Kate (Charlotte Peed), the no-nonsense eldest, who works as a schoolteacher, providing the family with an income and never letting them forget it; Maggie (Sarah Barton), the witty wisecracker whose jokes and songs barely mask her disappointment; Rose (Elisabeth Yancey), who is convinced the married man she’s fallen for will leave his wife for her; Agnes (Margaret Dunn), who helps around the house and earns a little money knitting gloves with Rose; and Chris (Angela Bilkic), Michael’s unwed mother. Chris alternates between optimism — when Gerry (Will Keary), Michael’s charming bounder of a father, visits — and depression, when he disappears again.
Into this mix comes Father Jack (the inimitable John Davin), the Mundys’ older brother, who has returned home in ill health after 25 years as a missionary in a Ugandan leper colony. Both he and Gerry represent the world outside Ballybeg, to which the sisters are denied access. Father Jack was heralded as a town hero for his sacrifice converting the heathens of Uganda, but his star falls when he confesses his admiration for tribal rituals that make no distinction between the religious and the secular. His enthusiasm for Chris’s “love child,” as he calls Michael, only adds to the shame the women feel about their social status.
The audience at Wellesley College’s Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre surrounds David Towlun’s evocative set, and the porousness of the boundary between stage and spectators creates the sense that we are inside the Mundy household with them. While Towlun offers only suggestions of walls, a tree, and the grassy lane outside, the Mundys’ old stove and unreliable Marconi radio tether Michael’s memories to a few concrete bits of reality. Likewise, the sisters’ simple activities — Chris irons a surplice for the church, Maggie works out her frustration on a bowl of dough, Agnes and Rose constantly click their knitting needles — ground a story whose powerful emotional currents are, ultimately, short-circuited by forces beyond their intimate world.
When a bit of Celtic music pours out of the radio, the sisters seize the opportunity, throw off their burdens, and join in an exuberant dance. It may not last long, but for a brief moment, their lives are full of joy and promise. Witnesses to Michael’s bittersweet recollection, we share in that exhilaration and are reminded to treasure those moments, no matter how fleeting they may be.