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`Dancing at Lughnasa’ - a mesmerizing treat

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Irish playwrights and poets have given us some of our finest literary moments. Contemporary writer Brian Friel ("Philadelphia, Here I Come!" and "Molly Sweeney") is no exception.

"Dancing at Lughnasa" (pronounced loo-nuh-suh) is a mesmerizing treat, filled with lyrical dialogue and beguiling characters."This Ginger Rogers has seen better days," Aunt Meg, the Mundy family jokester, quips following a frenetic, almost primal dance by she and her four sisters around their rural Irish kitchen one warm August afternoon in 1936.

But don't go into this expecting to see a bright and snappy Rogers-Astaire musical.

To be sure, there is dancing - but it's used here mainly as a terpsichorean metaphor for a multitude of deep-seated psychological problems. And there is music, too . . . sometimes . . . whenever the temperamental wireless radio decides to kick in.

But between the dancing (nicely choreographed by Jayne Luke) and the music (kudos to James Prigmore), playwright Friel lets the audience peel away at layer upon layer of a relatively impoverished and complex family's hopes, dreams and secrets.

By the time Act Two flows along, you learn some surprising things - not only about the Mundys, but even your own thoughts about religion, love, family unity and other issues.

Director John Going has an exceptionally talented cast, mostly New York guest artists along with a few familiar PTC regulars.

Max Robinson plays Michael, the "love child" of Chris, one of five unmarried sisters living together in the longtime family home two miles outside the village of Ballybeg, County Donegal. The grown-up Michael narrates the play and Max - at a distance - also provides the voice for his 7-year-old alter ego. (You have to use your imagination here while the sisters interact with an otherwise invisible lad.)

Michael has grown into a rather normal, intelligent chap, after being mothered by the five sisters - optimistic and joyous Maggie, played by Jo Twiss; stern and coldly logical Kate (Giulia Pagano), even-tempered and compassionate Agnes (Joyce Cohen), slightly retarded and energetic Rose (Brenda Foley), and his mother, Chris, played by Tara Falk.

But Michael doesn't fare as well in the male role model department. There are only his lackadaisical father, Gerry Evans (Patrick Boll), who intermittently drifts in and out of their lives, dabbling in one sorry scheme after another, and Father Jack (Richard Mathews), a Catholic priest who has come home from Ugan-da suffering from malaria (and on the outs with the pope for following his own distinctive religious journey).

Linking everything together is dance - Gerry twirling Chris around the yard to a big-band tune but out of step when it comes to a serious relationship . . . Jack and his strange African rituals . . . Aunt Kate giving in to the music on the radio with a stiff dance that masks her inner feelings . . . Agnes and Rose eventually dancing into oblivion . . . and wonderful Aunt Maggie, who's not afraid to cut loose and speak her mind.

Adding considerably to the mystical, magical lyricism of "Lughnasa" are Peter Harrison's impeccable scenery (a large, homey kitchen set against a high, weedy hillside), Peter L. Willardson's lighting, Brenda Van Der Weil's detailed period costuming and Cynthia L. McCourt's hair/makeup designs.

- Sensitivity rating: Some strong themes and a smattering of strong language.