It is true today, as it was most certainly true in the 1930s, that Ireland exists at wistful, and sometimes mad, crossroads. A show dealing with Irish cultural identity, “Dancing at Lughnasa,” is onstage at Coastal Repertory Theatre June 8 through June 30. Set around themes of music and dancing, the show also explores nostalgia, historical change and pagan ritual.
Written by leading Irish playwright Brian Friel, it was first produced in 1990 at Abbey Theatre, Dublin. It went to Broadway in 1991 and went on to win Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle awards for best play.
It is set in the fictional town of Ballybeg, and told from the viewpoint of Michael, who recounts the summer in his aunts’ place when he was 7 years old. His memories of love and loss in 1936 show women dancing in a final celebration of life — before it changed forever.
The five Mundy sisters, all unmarried, live in a big cottage just outside of town. Kate, the oldest is a schoolteacher; Agnes and Rose knit gloves and help keep house with Maggie and Christine (Michael’s mother), who have no income at all.
Recently returned home is their brother Jack, a priest who has lived as a missionary in a leper colony in Uganda for 25 years. Suffering from malaria, he has trouble remembering things. And Gerry, Michael’s father, is charming and unreliable.
Kris Carey of San Mateo, who plays Jack, says the play has an Irish melancholy: “My character is broken down, physically debilitated. Yet I find it interesting that I have different relationships with each of my sisters, except for Rose, the youngest, whom I don’t remember.”
Renee Diascenti, who plays Maggie, finds theproduction amazing in terms of exploring family and sister dynamics. “Even though it takes place in the 1930s, it speaks to current audiences showing that comradeship keeps the family together,” Diascenti says.
She sees Maggie as the joker of the family, who reminds her sisters that they can still laugh even through hard times. “Maggie feels pain but tries to laugh and bring out good nature from a bad situation. It is easy for me to act her part, as I love to joke and laugh also.”
Director Dutch Fritz says the play emphasizes personal relationships with family as well as endurance during a time of hardship. “Although the British tried to stamp out Irish traditions, these rituals practiced for thousands of years have managed to hold their importance to this culture. You can put any group of people in this situation, and one can identify with the dynamics how culture changes from outside influences which affect family, yet traditions are carried forward,” Fritz says.
Coastal Rep is at 1167 Main St., Half Moon Bay. For more information, call (650) 569-3268 or visit www.coastalrep.com.