As the actors of Torch Theater assume their roles in the splendid Dancing at Lughnasa, staged through January 30 at Theatre Garage—the self-righteous one, the slow one, the bawdy one—you settle in for what you expect to be a warm winter’s nap of a night at the theater. This is the play, after all, that became the feel-good, Oprah-endorsed movie of 1998 starring Meryl Streep. But you’d be wrong to assume that what Brian Friel, Ireland’s greatest living playwright, sets in motion in this ensemble piece about five sisters growing up in rural Ireland is what you’ll be left with in the end.
The play, in its effortless exploration of family, faith, and community, is true to the mission of Torch Theater, as created by actress Stacia Rice (and then briefly abandoned as she became more and more in-demand at the Guthrie Theater and elsewhere): “Supremely accessible theater.” Rice has no intention of pushing boundaries or buttons, rather she’s interested in opening the old ticker a stitch or two and letting the light shine in—like other Torch productions, Dancing isn’t about virtuosity, or what sets us apart, it’s about the things we take for granted, that bring us together, well, like family, faith, and community.
The Twin Cities can’t get enough of Brian Friel; his friend and compatriot Joe Dowling at the Guthrie Theater recently staged The Faith Healer and premiered The Home Place a few years back. And if his style leans toward the traditional, and sounds the occasional sentimental note, he nevertheless consistently surprises. Just when you think the play is about to go all O channel on you—repressed women breaking out in song and dance (good for them!)—a dark cloud appears on the horizon. Dancing is as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming, as the sisters bump up against each other in their tiny home and ultimately out of each other’s lives.
Within the idea of accessibility, there are shadings that make all the difference: This isn’t The Sound of Music, and it’s not community theater either. With this prodution, with Torch in general, you get smart plays with the very best acting—accessible virtuosity, as it were. And with a slew of the Twin Cities finest actresses filling the stage here—Stacia Rice, Tracey Maloney, Karen Wiese-Thompson, Mo Perry, Amanda Whisner—you get exactly that perfect night at the theater you were hoping for, only, as with any great production, it’s not neccessarily what you expected.