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Epic Arts says farewell to QC with Dancing at Lughnasa

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People may not remember that Charlotte should be in the middle of a Mary Zimmerman festival right now. But Epic Arts Repertory scrapped plans to do Zimmerman's adaptation of The Arabian Nights and instead is saying farewell to the Queen City with Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa.

County Donegal is the setting for this Irish memory play that hearkens back to August 1936 at the beginning of Lughnasa, the annual harvest festival. Our narrator is Michael, the illegitimate son of Chris, youngest of the five Mundy sisters. Their impoverished household has swelled to seven with the return of Uncle Jack from Uganda, stricken with malaria, and the period of the play marks the time when Michael had his first chance to observe his dashing ne'er-do-well dad, Gerry.

But the story revolves around the siblings, and if it were called The Five Sisters -- or The Two Kites -- the Chekhovian drift of Friel's theme would be even clearer. Like the kites that 7-year-old Michael builds, the sisters are colorful and bursting with vitality, but their lives will never take flight. They must dance joyously together briefly when the battery and the antenna are working and their cruddy radio spits out a fragment of a rowdy reel. Or they must slow-dance without music, like Gerry and Chris before they part.

Joe Rux presides over the narrative as Michael and peeps in occasionally as his 7-year-old self, usually downstage where actors are audible. Nathan Rouse follows up his local debut in Southern Rapture as the ruthless theater critic with a devilishly charming turn as Gerry, and Hank West is the essence of befuddled decrepitude as Uncle Jack.

Stan Peal's scenic design places the Mundy kitchen upstage behind their garden, contrary to Friel's directive to set them side-by-side, so the sisters must project more loudly during their domestic gossiping and infighting to be heard. Director Lon Bumgarner, unfortunately, doesn't make that demand although the sisters are superbly delineated.

Sue Plassman is not at all one-dimensional as the rigid Kate, nor is Annette Saunders without heart and inarticulate longings as the "simple" Rose. Newcomer Ellerie Daube has her key scenes downstage with Gerry as Chris, so their youthful glow eclipses the frequent dropouts that occur upstage. To portray Agnes, Julie Janorschke Gawle has to be an expert knitter in more ways than one, for she has protective feelings toward Rose, jealousy toward Chris over Gerry, and rebellious outrage against Kate's tyranny.

Maggie may be the sister whom Michael admires most, a self-deprecating, salt-of-the-earth spinster who can almost get over the lack of a man in her life with an occasional cigarette -- and the odd primal scream when the radio kicks on and music pours out. Laura Depta, the Epic Arts co-founder with her husband Peal, makes her role as Maggie a memorable valedictory.

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