THE harvest bonfires on County Donegal hilltops burn with no less intensity than the passions of five sisters who live and yearn in Brian Friel's play "Dancing at Lughnasa."
When the production, imported from Dublin's Abbey Theatre, landed on Broadway in 1991, it drew considerable attention and later earned several Tony Awards.
Now "Dancing at Lughnasa" is touring with the Broadway cast (although not with all the original Abbey Theatre actors, who were required by Actors Equity union to return home after their New York stint), and the transition from New York to Boston's Colonial Theatre has been capably handled. The play continues here until Jan. 17; other cities to be included on the tour have not been announced.
While most Irish plays squeeze lots of mileage out of simply being Irish, "Dancing at Lughnasa" is appealing on several levels. Audiences looking for simple entertainment will enjoy the vividly drawn characters and quaint setting. People familiar with the church-state conflict imbedded in Ireland's past will appreciate the religious subtext. But the play addresses and comments on deeper issues.
Friel sets his play during the pagan harvest celebration, called Lughnasa, and his narrator describes the fires and dancing that accompany it. The five women share a house with their brother, a priest who's returned from years as a missionary in Uganda. One sister has had a child out of wedlock; the others pine for romance, for a break from domestic drudgery, and for relief from the habitual restraint of their Roman Catholic upbringing. With the help of their new wireless radio, the women taste life outs ide, and in one swift, exuberant scene, throw propriety out the window and dance uninhibitedly around the kitchen.
It is their dance that lends the drama its undercurrent of passion; throughout the play, the urge toward joy and spontaneity bubbles up, threatening the veneer of rigid determination and forced obedience. Friel seems to dare his characters to shed their fatalism and be true to themselves. He shows that these women live at odds with their natural impulses to dance, sing, explore, and love.
The value of "Dancing at Lughnasa" is that one leaves the theater with a sense of how much humor and love remain in this family, despite their circumstances.