There is something very satisfying about watching “Dancing at Lughnasa” in September. Irish playwright Brian Friel set his poignant memory play at the harvest — a time of ritual, thanksgiving and reflection. Regardless of the vagaries of temperature, we feel in our bones the sun’s autumn slant.
Jon Cranney’s staging of “Lughnasa” for Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo stirs up that irresistible mix of mirth, celebration, sadness and change that Friel so masterfully concocted. The playwright shows us how language evokes something beyond vocabulary. Words, in Friel’s hands, are symbols — a code — that point us toward a greater understanding of human survival.
Friel narrates the story through Michael Mundy (Jason Ballweber), who recalls the summer of 1936 in Ballybeg, Ireland. It was the last time he recalls that his mother, her four sisters and their brother were together in the shambling family house.
What will happen to them is best left to the play to tell. But it is clear that just as Tennessee Williams’ Tom fled his home in “The Glass Menagerie,” so too will Michael fly away, as far as he can, from this sad place when he comes of age.
In 1936, though, Michael is 7, surrounded by his mother, Christine (Jessica Lind Peterson), and his aunts Kate (Katherine Ferrand), Agnes (Carolyn Trapskin), Maggie (Melanie Wehrmacher) and Rose (Rachel Weber). Occasionally darting through the house like a haunted wraith is Uncle Jack (Patrick O’Brien), just returned from 25 years ministering to lepers in Uganda.
Michael’s father, Gerry Evans (Michael Lee), visits occasionally to sweet-talk Christine and promise her the moon. He’s a vagabond, committed only to a transient life.
Cranney’s production is sure-footed despite a few quibbles (inconsistent accents, occasional brittleness).
Wehrmacher’s Maggie provides the emotional ballast for the household, a leader with a swaggering confidence. Peterson, who looks a bit like a city girl at first glance, articulates Christine’s mix of regret, wanderlust and domestic kindness. Ferrand’s Kate has one of the most heartbreaking lines of the play, fearing the sisters’ world is about to collapse because “the whole thing is so fragile,” and she has a manner and look that match that vulnerability. Weber and Trapskin stand out in roles that occasionally fade out.
The men are fine, too. O’Brien is simply mesmerizing as the damaged Jack, although he seems to skip the Irish accent. Lee has a grand style, and Ballweber’s Michael is a modest storyteller.
Yellow Tree’s is not the perfect production, but it is well worth a late summer’s evening.