by Michael Bowen

Memory plays are tricky. When playwrights insert narrator figures between us and the action, it often feels as if the theater is trying too hard to be more like the novel. Long, flowery descriptions and internal monologues don't work so well onstage.

Brian Friel provides a narrator, a stand-in for himself, in his autobiographical drama centered on five sisters in Depression-but-not-completely-depressing Ireland, Dancing at Lughnasa (through April 27 at the Civic's Main Stage). When he speaks directly to the audience, the adult Michael (Ron Varela) recalls what happened to him when he was a boy.

Director Sara Edlin-Marlowe chooses to embody both the adult Michael and the boy: She gives the part of young Michael to an actual onstage actor (played here by 10-year-old Benjamin Bartels). Friel's intent was different: He called for the "convention" that the boy Michael is entirely imaginary, that all of the boy's lines are spoken by the adult Michael, who nonetheless remains off to the side, with the other actors speaking to an unseen Michael junior.

Edlin-Marlowe's decision has one obvious merit: Instead of having a narrator who simply talks at us, the audience has a real, living boy to look at during the scenes when young Michael interacts with his mother Chris and his four aunts.

But the decision to add an actor to the cast also creates some changes of emphasis. Keeping the adult Michael onstage reminds us continually that this is a memory play, that all of it is filtered through the hindsight of an adult narrator (who may have been just a child then, but whose hindsight now makes all the difference). And the Mundy sisters had better take the opportunity to dance, because any moment now some guy in a suit will come strolling out of the wings and start depressing everybody in the audience with a description of how, years later, they all came to miserable ends.

In effect, the adult Michael reminisces before the end: His memories provide a context for the present action, not just an after-thought commentary. It's like looking at one of those Breughel paintings of peasants dancing: They look energetic and well-fed and tipsy, but then that was centuries ago. Europe has seen a few wars since then.

But Friel's play isn't entirely a downer. Far from it. Lughnasa encourages us to downplay things like rigid piety and insistence upon attention to duty, so we won't miss out on savoring those happy little moments that tumble into our lives and catch us unaware. And it hints at themes without belaboring them: the conflicts between passion and restraint, traditional piety vs. pagan frenzy, and the struggle of the mundane against the exciting, among others. It's subtle enough to be more than just another carpe diem play.

The acting is similarly subtle, making for one of the Civic's most accomplished ensembles in recent years. Ann Russell Whiteman, for example, plays Kate, the spinster schoolmarm and eldest of the Mundy sisters, as a pious superego whose id often needs some scratching. Even as she condemns all this pagan dancing and cavorting about, Whiteman -- at Edlin-Marlowe's urging, since it's a departure from the script -- sneaks off outdoors and dances a writhing solo, even as her sisters are stomping in the kitchen. Responsibilities hem her in, but her urge to dance breaks through anyway.

As Uncle Jack, the "leper priest" who has returned from Africa unsure of all things Irish, Reed McColm wisely chooses not to overdo his character's disorientation. Tami Grady Rotchfold hints at the "slowness" of Rose, whom she plays as a bit addled in the head, don't you know, but still capable of being more in touch with native traditions and her own passions than any of her more intelligent sisters. Susan Hardie could easily have chosen to exaggerate the carefree irreverence of Maggie (who actually dares to smoke cigarettes, and in a Catholic home); instead, she tells riddles and puts her feet up on the table, fine, yet never without remembering that she's 38, unmarried, and likely to remain alone for a long, long time. And as Chris, Michael's mother and the one who brought shame on the Mundy women for having a child out of wedlock, Nancy Gasper pulls off the feat of showing her primal attraction for Gerry (Craig Bynum) while still displaying her uneasiness over how irresponsible he is. Little Michael is left, as a result, to observe how his mother is both enamored and distrustful, both happy and sad. Which, after all, is the tone throughout this Lughnasa world.

Why, then, should you go see a rather depressing drama about a bunch of impoverished and ill-fated Irish sisters? Because the Civic's ensemble embodies what Friel was trying to get: the surrender of language to movement, the need to live in the moment rather than retreating to reams of verbal self-analysis.

We mustn't over-think, after all, but simply react. Who knows what hammer-blows fate will deal out tomorrow? Dancing after life's harvest -- dancing at "La Lughnasa," when the harvest has barely been taken in, and so much of what we have to reap lies before us -- may be all the happiness that this life affords. Turn up the wireless, the TV, the stereo. Let's just dance.

Publication date: 04/17/03

Echoes of Expo @ Riverfront Park

Through July 7
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Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.