"Dancing at Lughnasa," Brian Friel's hauntingly beautiful memory play about the disintegration of an impoverished Irish family in the 1930s, is as close to living poetry as you're likely to find in the theater.
Friel uses language not so much to define or explain facts as to evoke a reality in which, as his narrator and stand-in Michael puts it, "atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory."
And so, in recalling his pivotal boyhood summer of 1936, Michael's narrative and the flashbacks that spring to life around him are steeped in the shimmering, elusive currents of felt truths.
It's a work that demands extraordinary delicacy and nuance in both staging and performance, and for the most part the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts' Theaterfest production succeeds in offering an intimate glimpse into Friel's poignant reminiscences.
Frederic Barbour plays the adult Michael, setting the play in motion and reappearing at key points to ensure we appreciate the importance of seemingly unremarkable events. Barbour's narration remains quiet and unsentimental throughout, his affections tempered with the resignation wrought by time. As his memories take shape around him, Friel's narrator supplies the voice of Michael's invisible boyhood self, an elegant technique to suggest his detachment from his own past.
Michael's story centers on the efforts of his unwed mother, Chris (Janet M. Stipicevitch), and her four sisters to keep their household together despite the sweeping social changes that engulf their fictional town of Ballybeg.
Loyalties and underlying tensions dart like squirrels through the domestic interplay among dour schoolteacher Kate (Teresa Thuman), lively, irrepressible Maggie (Elisabeth Ritson), taciturn Agnes (Lisa Paulsen) and retarded Rose (Kitty Balay Genge). The women (especially Chris and Maggie) are each rendered with appealing natural grace, though at times the interpersonal rhythms fall short of the lyrical flow suggested by the narration. An opportunity to balance the play's feminine sensibilities eludes Ron Heneghan's turn as Michael's deadbeat father.
But as Michael's uncle, Father Jack--a missionary recently returned from a Ugandan leper colony--Brad Carroll delivers a heartbreaking portrait of a hollow shell wasted by malaria, rallying his addled wits for even the simplest words. Jack's admiration for the Ugandans' lack of differentiation between their spiritual and secular lives opens the door to the play's underlying fascination with disruptive but vital paganism.
Director Roger DeLaurier's staging in the round is a particularly inviting choice, handsomely surmounting its share of logistical difficulties in presenting some very stationary scenes to the entire house.
Amid the stasis of lives nearly consumed by drudgery, the sudden eruptions of music from the family's intermittently functioning radio cause these tragic characters to burst into dance, sending their spirits aloft in fleeting reconnections with the wild heart of life.
* WHAT: "Dancing at Lughnasa."
* WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7 p.m.
* WHERE: Severson Theatre, Allan Hancock College, Santa Maria.
* HOW MUCH: $12-$18.
* CALL: (800) 549-PCPA.