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Friday, October 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 58.0° F  Overcast
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University Theatre's Dancing at Lughnasa visits an Irish clan on the brink of colossal changes
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As the summer fades the women of Dancing at Lughnasa persevere.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

"I know I had a sense of unease, some awareness of a widening breach between what seemed to be and what was, of things changing too quickly." So begins Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, with the story's narrator, Michael (Daniel Millhouse), introducing us to his eccentric family members and the home they all shared in the rural Irish town of Ballybeg in the summer of 1936. These memories are lovingly presented by an able cast, under the direction of Patricia Boyette, in the opening production of University Theatre's 2013-14 season (through Oct. 19).

The story unfolds as the community prepares to celebrate Lughnasa, a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest. The Mundy family -- five unmarried sisters and 7-year-old Michael -- is visited by Michael's charming but largely absent father, Gerry Evans (Noah Jeffries). While he sweeps Michael's mother, Christina (Maggie Thury), off her feet with tall tales, new business schemes and flirtatious dance lessons, the family braces for another round of broken promises when he inevitably abandons them.

They also welcome Michael's Uncle Jack back to Ballybeg. After serving as a Catholic missionary in Uganda for 25 years, Father Jack (James Stauffer) is sent home, ostensibly due to failing health. But it quickly becomes apparent that instead of bringing Catholicism to the African leper colony, Jack has been converted to the pagan beliefs of the natives.

As the summer fades the women persevere, buoyed by occasional jubilant dances to the music of the unreliable wireless radio dubbed "Marconi." It is their resilience and fleeting joy in the face of bitter circumstances that Michael tries to share through his admittedly hazy memories.

Kate Mann, who plays the ebullient sister Maggie, delightfully captures the character's energy, humor and mischievous spark. Her foil is Kate, the oldest sister and prim matriarch of the Mundy clan. Portrayed with subtlety and affection by Hannah Ripp-Dieter, Kate’s stern and morally rigorous demeanor only rarely reveals her desperation to keep the family together.

As the mentally challenged sister, Rose, Amy Bahr could have created a more childlike and vulnerable character. Without the sense that Rose depends completely on her sisters for guidance and protection, her romantic dalliance seems merely rebellious instead of shocking.

And while the scenes among the sisters are generally well paced, Millhouse's Michael draws out his monologues. Though his words are poetic, they seem emotionally distant. Unfortunately, there isn't enough chemistry between him and Thury, either.

Visually, the sense of a bygone era is translated beautifully in the browns, pinks and sepia tones of many of Gail Brassard's period costumes and Paul Timmel's warm lighting design. Vocal coach Michael Cobb for helped the cast master a consistent and believable accent, far from the "Lucky Charms" lilt that plagues many productions set in Ireland.

Despite its flaws, this production of Dancing at Lughnasa captures the touching, bittersweet drama of a family on the brink of enormous change. Like the narrator, audiences will enjoy visiting the Mundy home during last warm days of a summer, even though we know a cold winter is just around the corner.

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