Winds of change in the Irish countryside

'Dancing at Lughnasa' tells the story of five sisters, a brother fresh from Africa, and rural Irish life in the 1930s

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

The Irish countryside in 1936 was home to a mix of pagan sensibilities and Catholic values. Five Irish sisters confront their cultural traditions and the changes life brings to their family farmstead in County Donegal in "Dancing at Lughnasa."

"Dancing at Lughnasa," a production of Juneau-Douglas Little Theatre, opens at 8 p.m. Friday at the Palace Theatre. A free preview will be staged at 8 tonight.

Lughnasa (pronounced Loo-nossa) is an ancient Celtic harvest festival held in August.

"It commemorates the god Lugh, a Celtic god of the sun and the harvest," said Phil Smith, who directs the play. "It has overtones of fecundity and planting, all of that."

Smith said the play tells the story of five sisters living on the family farm in the remote Irish countryside. The story unfolds as the memory of the youngest sister's son Michael. Smith contributes narration from off-stage in that role.


"The story also involves an older brother, Jack, who has been in the Catholic missions in Uganda for 25 years, and he returns to the family home," Smith said. "He's been exposed and experienced these African festivals of harvest and fertility, which kind of mirror the Celtic festival of his own tradition."

Michael's father is a Welshman, a drifter who's been out of the picture for some time. His reappearance makes that summer of 1936 even more noteworthy for the sisters.

Gary Waid portrays Jack, and Tim Lamkin is Michael's father. The sisters are played by Gina Spartz, Debora Stovern, Meilani Clark, Katrina Rice and Deborah Smith.

Artist Jim Fowler brings the rolling green hills of the Irish countryside to the Palace Theatre for the production. Fowler created the largest work of his career for the show, a 14- by 30-foot painting of the landscape behind the farm. He also used chicken wire and brown paper to build a 14-foot sycamore tree.

"It's kind of fun to come in and invent the world," Fowler said.

He worked from the script, consulted with the director, and worked every morning for the past several weeks. He said he'd return in the evening to fine tune, checking out how the set changed with lights and people on stage.

"The cast is part of the set in a way," he said. Smith concurred.

"The thing about a well-designed set is you interact with it," Smith said. "You increase its power several fold."

"It's a beautiful play," Fowler said. "There's a lot of depth in the relationships and a lot of undertones. It's poignant and somewhat tragic."

The 1930s brought a few changes to Ireland, including the advent of radio and industry. Radio

introduced music and news of the outside to the provincial countryside. In "Dancing at Lughnasa," a new factory opens that makes gloves with Irish wool, replacing a cottage knitting industry that has brought some income to the family. These themes also are touched upon in the story.

"Dancing at Lughnasa," by Brian Freil, debuted in Dublin in 1990. Smith said he saw the play there in 1993.

"I was fascinated with the quality of the writing," he said. "The themes I find to be quite universal and interesting."

The play came to Broadway in 1992 and won three Tony Awards, for Best Director, Best Play and Best Supporting Actress. It also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

"I think it's a challenge to meet the requirements of the script, with the lights, the stage and the acting," Smith said. "I saw a potential for this to be greater than the sum of the parts."

"Dancing at Lughnasa," plays at 8 p.m. every Friday and Saturday through March 17, with matinees at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 4 and March 11. Tickets are $14 for Friday and Saturday, $10 for other days, available at Hearthside Books and at the door.

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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