The Irish Repertory Theatre's ongoing production of Brian Friel's Chekhovian masterpiece "Artistocrats" offers a fascinating portrayal of the decline of the Catholic aristocracy in 1970s Donegal

Directed by Charlotte Moore, "Aristocrats" chronicles the decaying home of Justice O'Donnell, the patriarch of a dysfunctional and once-formidable family and the last in a long line of justices. 

Set in the fictional Donegal town of Ballybeg, the play follows Justice O'Donnell's four children as they return to their ancestral home for a wedding but end up staying to attend a funeral. 

The crumbling mansion is a relic of the O'Donnell's once-powerful past, but their vast wealth has long disappeared and the family must now eke out a meager existence on Justice O'Donnell's pension. 

Despite this obvious decline, the family still distances itself from the villagers in Ballybeg and clings to the past through a series of fantasies, mainly through O'Donnell's eccentric son Casimir, who regales a disbelieving American scholar with implausible and impossible tales about distinguished guests who have visited Ballybeg Hall throughout the years. 

The audience learns that Casimir has disappointed his father by taking a job in a sausage factory in Hamburg, where he lives with his wife and three children who possibly do not exist. 

Justice O'Donnell, now stricken and bedridden, is only ever heard off-stage through a baby monitor, where his authoritarian manner comes to the fore. 

His daughter Judith has been tasked with caring for her ailing father, the man who forced her to give up an illegitimate child born out of wedlock and stifled her activism during the Troubles in Northern Ireland

The youngest daughter Claire, a chronic depressive whose musical talent was stifled by her father's domineering attitude, is due to be married to an older man whom she does not love partly due to the family's finances, while Alice lives in London with her working-class husband Eamon and struggles with alcoholism. 

Friel masterfully highlights the differences between the aristocratic O'Donnells and the villagers in Ballybeg through Willie Diver and Eamon - two working-class characters the family would never have previously associated with but are now driven to out of necessity. 

The Rep's ongoing revival of Friel's masterpiece features an outstanding cast who bring each character vividly to life, highlighting the mental anguish of each of the O'Donnell family. 

Shane McNaughton, a native of Co Antrim appearing in his first production at the Irish Rep, delivers a powerful performance as Willie, a character that would have once been eschewed by the O'Donnells but is now the glue that holds the family together. 

Willie simultaneously highlights the differences between the O'Donnells and the locals of Ballybeg while also demonstrating just how far from grace the O'Donnells have fallen. 

McNaughton told IrishCentral that he drew inspiration for the character from a number of personalities in his native village of Cushendall. 

"The character is so close to home in a lot of ways," McNaughton said. "I know at least ten lads from my village who are kind of like Willie Diver." 

McNaughton added that Friel's writing has made it even easier to bring the character to life, while the Irish Rep has made him feel at home during his first performance at the theater. 

"The dialogue is so richly layered. The characters are so vivid and are just there on the page. You don't have to do too much.

"It's been a wonderful experience," McNaughton added. "They're just great people and they're very accommodating." 

The 36-year-old was keen to praise his fellow cast members for their performance in the ongoing play. 

"There's a lot of people doing a lot harder work than I am. I have to stress that it's a handy enough shift for me." 

McNaughton's performance earned the approval of the New York Times last month, but the Belfast-born actor is not one to get carried away by good reviews. 

"That's nice, that's lovely. People will say that they don't care, but you're an artist and you care if people appreciate your work. It's nice to know that something is registering, but in saying that, if you believe those good reviews, that means you have to believe every bad review too. I try not to get too caught up in things like that." 

It has been a long road for McNaughton, who received his green card to work in the US last year. 

After graduating from the prestigious Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, McNaughton appeared in numerous Off-Broadway productions as he tried to follow his acting dream in the Big Apple. 

"It's a struggle," McNaughton said, reminiscing about his early acting career. "The first three years you're eating $1 slices of pizza.

"When you start drama school you dream of winning an Oscar. A year later, you just want a job. Two years later, you'll take an audition." 

McNaughton has now found his feet, however, and will return to Ireland in the summer to produce a feature-length film that he has written. 

The film is based on his short film "You I Know," which is based on his time working with young offenders and women prisoners in Northern Ireland's Prison Service. 

The film earned several nominations, including a Best Actor nomination for McNaughton at the Richard Harris Film Festival last year. He was also nominated for Best Actor at the British Short Film Awards. 

McNaughton said his chief goal is to tell stories, whether as a writer or a director, adding that his own life experiences have informed his acting career just as much as his time in drama school. 

"Whether it's inside the theater, on the top of a mountain, or on the side of a street, it doesn't really matter, it's all about telling stories. They're very different mediums, but I enjoy all of them as long as the story I'm telling is something I'm passionate about." 

"Aristocrats" runs at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City until Sunday, March 3.