The title of Brian Friel’s play “Dancing at Lughnasa” refers to the ancient Celtic pagan rites in celebration of the harvest and in giving thanks to the pagan god Lugh that were practiced until recently in Ireland. For many centuries, these August festivals conspicuously co-existed with the teachings of Christianity among the country folk. Friel’s delicate play, set in 1936, is about the five unmarried Mundy sisters and their missionary brother, who reside somewhat ritualistically in their modest home in Donegal, but exist more definitively within the memory of one of their sons.
A wonderful revival is now playing at the Irish Repertory Company (now celebrating its 20th anniversary season) through Sunday, January 15, and returns to remind us foremost of the play’s celebration of the secular and the spiritual. It is also a memory play in the best sense, because it permits the mere, the mundane, and occasionally the mercurial everyday behavior of its characters to resonate affectingly within a poeticized context.
In the tradition of Tennessee Williams and Anton Chekhov, “Dancing at Lughnasa” is realistic and illusory, funny and sad. The year it appeared on Broadway in 1991, it had already won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play in London. What is especially noteworthy about this revival is how tenderly and excitingly the Irish Rep has attended to it under the direction of the company’s artistic director Charlotte Moore.
It isn’t news that Friel has added luster to many New York theater seasons with plays like “Philadelphia, Here I Come,” and “Aristocrats,” but it is news that this lovely production, if my memory serves, stands up in all the ways it matters to the original Abbey Theater production that was transported to New York.
The story may be slight, wistful, and more than a touch melancholy, but there is a dazzlingly reflective and marvelously loony texture to the narrative that will appeal to all who favor the flavor of the rustic Irish temperament. It is recalled by the “love-child” son Michael (Ciaran O’Reilly), whose remarkable feat it is to appear, or rather partake, in the action, both as the adult narrator and as himself as a child. We see a household of resolute women fighting against the despair that has come from their general economic hardships and from the more specific hardships of their romantically bleak existence.
Personalities clash, collide, and also blend with endearing musicality as the impoverished middle-aged sisters — the oldest and most formidable Kate (Orlagh Cassidy); the spirited and feisty Maggie (Jo Kinsella); the flighty, dancing queen Agnes (Rachel Pickup); the impulsive lovelorn Rose (Aedin Moloney); and the love-smitten Chris (Annabel Hagg) — segue from pure frustration to purifying dancing. Kevin Collins is disarmingly roguish as the part-time salesman, part-time ballroom dancing teacher, and part-time visitor of his son and the woman he loves, but has not gotten around to marrying.
Michael Countryman is an actor with an instinct for capturing a reality that is uniquely his own, but yet is never out of synch with his character. This is particularly true of his performance as Jack, the ailing and weary missionary brother who returns from Africa after 25 years to find his home and his sisters much as he left them, but just a bit more weathered.
A fine accomplishment for choreographer Barry McNabb is the way he has inserted the rage, fire, and passion of the traditional Irish dance steps to define each of the sisters. Also impressive is the set design by Antje Ellermann that brings into impressive relief the modest kitchen area of the Mundy family home outside the village of Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland. ***
“Dancing at Lughnasa,” through Sunday, January 15, the Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street, between 6th and 7th avenues. $55 and $65. 212-727-2737 or www.irishrep.org