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Distractions of a Summer Night

Some plays are just meant to be seen indoors.

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Dancing at Lughnasa Oak Park Festival Theatre

The ancient Greeks understood outdoor theater. Spectacle predominates in their drama. Stylized masks, platform boots, and oversize gloves made the performers seem larger than life—a useful strategy when you're playing to 15,000. Choruses of a dozen or more sang and danced in unison as they shepherded the action along. The performers became surrogates for mythic figures whose towering passions couldn't be housed in a human-scaled building.

The field of vision was 360 degrees, taking in nature and the polis. When you're outdoors, it's nearly impossible to sustain anything less. No wonder so many contemporary stagings of the Greeks fall flat: viewing such mammoth events in even a relatively large proscenium theater feels like watching a parade in a closet.

But sometime in the 19th century, with the rise of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov (and not coincidentally the advent of electric lighting) artists began creating theater that could only be successfully viewed indoors. Its gaze was no longer comprehensive but linear and bifurcated: the audience watched actors who watched only each other. Rather than participating in a communal event, audiences now played voyeurs, sitting silently in the dark and spying on well-lit people who pretended they were alone with their private troubles. The real world surrounding the production was hidden in darkness and behind curtains. And the smallest tics—all but invisible except in a highly controlled environment—became the primary focus.

Of course, there's no point in lamenting the shift: the ancient style can at least be suggested through the manipulation of theatrical convention, and the modern gave us Long Day's Journey Into Night. But woe betide the director who mistakes one for the other. An elaborate orchestration of tiny gestures is sure to die in an amphitheater no matter how well performed.

And that's what happens to director Belinda Bremner's passionately acted, handsomely designed Dancing at Lughnasa. Plunked down in the middle of a field, this Oak Park Theatre Festival production becomes all but invisible.

Set in rural Ireland in 1936, in the fictional town of Ballybeg (literally "small town" in Gaelic), Brian Friel's 1990 drama concerns the five unmarried Mundi sisters, who range in age from 26 to 40 and live hand-to-mouth in the family cottage. They're so penned in by Irish tradition and Catholic sexual mores that their futures appear to hold nothing but frustration, boredom, and unfulfilled romantic longing. Their uncle Jack, a missionary priest recently returned after a quarter century in Uganda, is meanwhile so enamored of African "pagan" ways that Ballybeg, his family, and even his native language seem impossibly foreign to him.

The play takes place around Lughnasa, the Celtic harvest festival, when everyone in town gathers for a huge dance—everyone, that is, but the Mundi sisters. Kate, the oldest and a staunch Catholic, forbids them from attending such an un-Christian affair. The urge to dance, to break free of conventional limitations and embrace one's passions and dreams, becomes Friel's central theme, trotted out so often it threatens to turn the play into a procession of overdetermined metaphors.

Like The Glass Menagerie (also set in 1936), Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play put in motion by a narrator mulling over an important episode from his past. Michael Evans, the illegitimate son of the youngest sister, revisits the summer when he was seven and spent all his time building kites that would never fly. But unlike Glass Menagerie's narrator, Michael has no discernible stake in the action and never influences it—a problem Bremner exacerbates by planting Michael downstage center for much of the time, where he sits sullenly, doing nothing. Michael suggests early in the play that this is the pivotal summer when his family falls apart, but Friel never dramatizes this collapse. Instead he has Michael stop the action cold in the middle of the second act to describe all the terrible things that will happen eventually.

Friel's skill lies in dramatizing the the sisters' paralyzed lives: their petty skirmishes, their efforts to suppress the deep-seated desires that might bring them fulfillment but shatter the tenuous peace in their household. This narrative-free, ensemble-centered aspect of the play lacks life-or-death urgency—it's Chekhov lite—but rings with poetic truth. Bremner wisely underplays the script's heavy-handed symbolism, focusing instead on the intricate interplay between the sisters, which her adept cast handle convincingly.

But under a summer evening sky, with airplanes, birds, insects, automobile backfires, barking dogs, and a sweaty crowd reeking of bug spray offering distractions every few seconds, Friel's finely orchestrated subtleties can't compete. The linear gaze this play requires can't be sustained. With the exception of an explosive dance scene, there's hardly a moment of visual spectacle. And the PA system, with voices emanating not from the actors' mouths but from tinny speakers to the side of the audience, turns even the most passionate speech dry and impersonal. Perhaps most problematic, in a wide-open field under a starry sky the Mundi sisters never seem trapped.

Across two and half hours, precious little comes into focus. If someone could quick build a theater around this smart, accomplished production, we might be able to see it.v

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