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THEATER REVIEW : ‘Lughnasa’ Sails Into the Mystic : SCR delivers a lush visual setting, a colorful ensemble and poignant feeling for Friel’s loving portrait of five sisters.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saving the Irish for last in a season notable for British, South African and Norwegian flavors, South Coast Repertory is offering the Los Angeles-area premiere of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” with as warm, earthy and evocative a production as you’re likely to find.

Not that director Martin Benson’s treatment has an indelible Irish tone right down to the marrow. It doesn’t. But it has what is needed for Friel’s loving portrait of five grown sisters whose family life in County Donegal is about to disintegrate: a lush visual setting, a colorful ensemble and poignant feeling.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 8, 1994 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 8, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
“Lughnasa” lighting--Paulie Jenkins is the lighting designer of South Coast Repertory’s production of “Dancing at Lughnasa.” A review Monday incorrectly referred to her as being male.

Though tinged with sadness, the production is also remarkably good-humored. It tells an old-fashioned tale of heartbreak yet refuses to wear its heart on its sleeve or tug at easy emotions.

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“Dancing at Lughnasa” (pronounced LOO-nuh-suh) comes freighted with honors. First performed at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1990, it won the 1991 Laurence Olivier Award for best play when transferred to London, and the 1992 Tony Award when brought to New York. Since then, it has been mounted in dozens of regional productions by resident theaters across the country.

The time of the play is the summer of 1936, framed in memory by an omniscient narrator, Michael (Richard Doyle). He recalls key childhood events for us and occasionally slips into scenes not unlike the Stage Manager in “Our Town” or Tom Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie,” though commenting afterward with a sense of awe rather than irony.

But mostly he disappears and lets the play focus on his unmarried mother, Chris (Elizabeth Dennehy), and her four older sisters, all headed toward spinsterhood with varying degrees of resignation or reluctance: the puritanical Kate (Megan Cole), the sardonic Maggie (Kandis Chappell), the mousy Agnes (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) and the simple-minded Rose (Ellen Lancaster).

Although just scraping by, they’ve managed to get a radio. It’s a temperamental instrument that goes on the blink more often than not. But when it works, it “throbs with the beat of Irish dance music” as well as the Tin Pan Alley sounds of Cole Porter, sending waves of rare pleasure through the house.

The summer is also marked by a pair of unexpected visits from Michael’s father, Gerry (James Lancaster), a dapper Welsh salesman with dancing feet whom he has never seen, and the return of an uncle, Father Jack (Hal Landon Jr.), a missionary priest sent home from Africa after serving 25 years in a leper colony because he had “gone native.”

We hear, too, of the harvest dances and bonfires in the surrounding Donegal hills, a throwback of sorts to ancient pagan rites known as the Festival of Lughnasa honoring Lugh, the Celtic god of the harvest (hence the play’s title).

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But these are only the outer trappings of a elegiac memory piece concerned less with plot than poetic texture, less with transformations of character than nuances of mood. As Michael says, his recollection of that summer seems a mirage in which “atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.”

The production design echoes that sentiment. Fleecy white clouds dominate Ralph Funicello’s set. They are painted in a blue sky above a backdrop of tilled fields. The platformed house has no walls and sits like a wooden ship floating at anchor on a raked stage within the trompe l’oeil countryside.

Everything is bathed in the rich ambience of Paulie Jenkins’ lighting. His hues sometimes take on the glow of pink and gold. By contrast, Walker Hicklin’s purposely drab peasant costumes convey the lackluster reality of the sisters’ lives. The total effect is gorgeous, a surreal blend of the natural and artificial.

As for the acting, it is all very solid.

Chappell seemed to enjoy herself the most on opening night Friday. But Ellen Lancaster walked off with the show. She gives a vivid, detailed, touching performance as Rose, the only character in the play who is visibly transformed by her experience.

Among many haunting moments, several are transcendent.

One comes when the sisters, listening to the radio, burst into a primitive group dance. Even Kate is swept up in the foot-stomping fervor. Another comes when Father Jack, who feels lost and forlorn, taps out a rhythm on a pair of sticks and does a shuffling step recalled from some African tribal ritual.

Both scenes, as well as others linked by the instinctive language of dance, go deeper than words. And South Coast’s production as a whole brings us closer to that mystical communion.

* “Dancing at Lughnasa,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends July 3. $25-$35. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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Richard Doyle: Michael

Elizabeth Dennehy: Chris

Kandis Chappell: Maggie

Deborah Van Valkenburgh: Agnes

Ellen Lancaster: Rose

Megan Cole: Kate

Hal Landon Jr.: Father Jack

James Lancaster: Gerry

A South Coast Repertory production of a play by Brian Friel. Directed by Martin Benson. Scenic designer: Ralph Funicello. Costume designer: Walker Hicklin. Lighting designer: Paulie Jenkins. Sound designer: Garth Hemphill. Choreography: Sylvia C. Turner. Production manager: Michael Mora. Stage manager: Bonnie Lorenger.

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