NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – Memories are unreliable, but that is part of what makes them beautiful.
The fragmented recollections of your youth – things such as the pattern of the wallpaper in your half-finished attic or the smell of your grandparents' cigarettes – may trigger a deep sense of comfort. They could be calledon in moments of stress to remind you that, once upon a time, everything was OK.
Of course, as we learn in Brian Friel's brilliant memory play "Dancing at Lughnasa," memories tend to lie. Things probably weren't OK. So the strange scrim through which we view the past is a fascinating subject for exploration, especially in the hands of a literary master.
The Shaw Festival's production of the 1990 play, directed with an elegiac tone by Krista Jackson, transports audiences back to the town of Ballybeg in in the northern part of the Republic of Ireland in the 1930s. It is based on Friel's recollections of his youth spent with his mother and aunts, who, like the characters in "Dancing at Lughnasa," congregate in the family's cramped kitchen to cook, talk, dance and dream about lives they were never destined to have.
The story, about the slow disintegration of this tight family unit, contains a hundred different shades of regret and longing and a few brief flickers of joy.
It is told from the perspective of Michael (Patrick Galligan), who serves as an omniscient narrator looking back on his youth. The child's presence in the play is only implied, allowing us to focus on the relationships among the women and their reaction to the return of their eccentric uncle.
That uncle, a doddering old priest played with consummate charm by Peter Millard, has just returned from decades of working in Africa. There, he has picked up the pagan habits and rituals of the natives, shedding his Catholic training in favor of a more holistic view of spirituality.
This goes over poorly with these Northern Irish sisters, especially Kate (Fiona Byrne), who is embarrassed at her uncle's unorthodox leanings and declining mental health.
But the comparison Friel sets up, between the pagan rituals of African tribes and the pre-Christian Irish ritual of Lughnasa, provides a space for the women to chase after their own true desires. Or, as it turns out, to stifle them.
The standout performance comes from Shaw veteran Tara Rosling as Maggie, a quivering ball of regret who clearly longs for release from the spiritual and economic strictures of her small-town Irish upbringing.
So does Rose (Diana Donnelly), who runs away to the hills beyond town, where Ireland's own pagans live, seduced by the notion of a life unattached to both religion and family. She eventually finds it with her sister Agnes (Claire Jullien), though not in the way she had hoped.
In a few too many spots, the interaction among the sisters seems strained and the moments of joy constructed. In others, the camaraderie seems easy and natural. This unevenness in execution makes for occasional tedium, though it does not detract too much from the power of the play.
The production, with a set of felt walls and period costumes by Sue LePage and ethereal lighting by Louis Guinard, looks and feels like a yellowed family photo album. It contains a few moments so real, you'd swear for a flicker that Friel's memories were your own.
"Dancing at Lughnasa"
Through Oct. 15 in the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $25 to $117. Visit shawfest.com.