Curio's 'Dancing at Lughnasa' a piercing pleasure

Isa St. Clair (Christina) and Trice Baldwin (Maggie) , in Curio Theatre Company's staging of 'Dancing at Lughnasa,' which runs until March 15. CLAIRE HORVATH
Isa St. Clair (Christina) and Trice Baldwin (Maggie) , in Curio Theatre Company's staging of 'Dancing at Lughnasa,' which runs until March 15. CLAIRE HORVATH
Posted: February 26, 2014

To be Irish is to have an existential dark spot in the soul, an ingrained gateway to fatal despair if it's not kept in check - which is what lies beyond the congenial face of Brian Friel's poetic, bittersweet play Dancing at Lughnasa.

Though the play had an international vogue in the 1990s followed by a film starring Meryl Streep, West Philadelphia's Curio Theatre Company made a fine case for revisiting Dancing at Lughnasa at its Friday opening, not just because its masterly writing reveals new things, particularly in the wake of our Great Recession.

The space - the converted Calvary Church on Baltimore Avenue - puts the audience closer than usual to this 1936 rural Irish household of five spinster sisters - with a stage that also feels like an island of sorts, whether an island in the memory of the narrator (a boy, now grown, recalling the house full of aunts) or one of stability that turns out to be tragically temporary.

The play's manner is matter-of-fact Chekhovian, never asking for our sympathies but certainly gaining them through the unvarnished honesty of the writing about this family of women, all of whom have lapsed into spinsterhood out of circumstance.

The household becomes a study in suppression: The sisters, who have wild Celtic natures beneath their civilized surfaces, are betrayed by their belief that good work and upholding community values will shield them from the quietly creeping disgrace that is befalling them. Their older brother, Father Jack, returns from decades of missionary work in Africa not in glory but out of his head from malaria and having been converted to paganism rather than spreading the word of Christianity.

Having seen the original Abbey Theater of Dublin production on multiple occasions, I can say that Curio's cast stands up perfectly well, in part because the play simply demands a baseline dramatic authenticity that's at the core of any good actor's technique.

Under Gay Carducci's direction, the cast confidently walks a fine line with a manner that feels casual enough to accommodate the sense that you're eavesdropping, but with enough extroversion to reveal the play's considerable depths.

Trice Baldwin (Maggie, who runs the household), Jennifer Summerfield (Kate, who supports them all with a teaching job), and Isa St. Clair (Christina, the mother of the narrator) give performances that are particularly prismatic, revealing inner lives through an outer manner.

Lesser characters actually have the greater challenge of making their presence felt with fewer lines and less to do. This is where the Curio cast isn't up to its predecessors. But that's merely a matter of living with their roles. Future performances will doubtlessly have a more even sense of ensemble.


THEATER REVIEW

Dancing at Lughnasa

Presented through March 15 by Curio Theatre Company

at the Calvary Center, 4740 Baltimore Ave. Tickets: $20-$25. 215-525-1358 or www.curiotheatre.org


dstearns@phillynews.com.

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