In memory everything seems to happen to music wrote Tennessee Williams once. It was an observation based on what he called the heart’s natural desire to embroider the past, and it must have inspired Ireland’s greatest living playwright Brian Friel in the process of writing Dancing at Lughnasa, his most accessible, heartfelt and yet cerebral play.

Now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York as the crowing production of another outstanding season, director Charlotte Moore understands that Dancing at Lughnasa’s uniqueness is that it unfolds in the mind as much as it does on the stage, making it a challenging mix of nostalgia and hard fact, which in turn makes it a difficult play to get right tonally, but Moore has.

Set in Co. Donegal in the early autumn of 1936, the play is a semi-autobiographical evocation of Friel’s own childhood when his aunts, the five Mundy sisters, all lived under the same roof before poverty and misfortune scattered them forever. 

Friel is represented in the person of five-year-old love child Michael, making his origins a terrific scandal for the period, and it becomes clear that the five persistently unmarried sisters are themselves beginning to represent a challenge to the conventions of their community.

Into this mix comes Father Jack (the pitch perfect Michael Countryman) a missionary who went out to convert Africa but. it soon becomes clear. was himself converted to the local spiritual traditions before being sent home.

Jack, for decades idolized by the women, turns out to be an immense social liability rather than the asset they took him for.  He’s also the first of the hairline cracks that open around their home.

The difficulty of Friel’s play is that many of the most tragic moments take place offstage and are referred to in monologues by the narrator Michael (played with a paradoxically engaged detachment by Ciaran O’Reilly).

Knowing beforehand what will eventually happen to the characters onstage is unbearably poignant, but you may sometimes find yourself hankering to see the women to have the confrontations they deserve, rather than the after the fact assessments that are delivered.

Still, there’s no denying the poetry or the mastery of this remarkable play, which represents Friel at the peak of his dramatic powers, and which takes us to the epicenter of his life in art.

Dancing at Lughnasa takes place at a crossroads in his own family’s life, and it records it with all the passion, laughter and heartache that he has carried with him for decades.

As Kate, the eldest sister and the local schoolteacher, Orlagh Cassidy mines the humor and the anxiety of her character to anchor the production on her slender but surprisingly strong shoulders.

Cassidy is variously the ringmaster, the recorder and the most eloquent witness to the events that unfold around her, and her performance is one of the joys of this production.

As Chris, the once carefree young sister who’s life took an unexpected turn that will define her, Annabel Haag brings authenticity and tenderness to a heartbreaking role.

As Agnes, the sister who understands before all the others what the future is bringing to the Mindy household, Rachel Pickup’s understated but passionate performance is the emotional center around which the production revolves.

Two Irish actresses are revelations. As Rose, perhaps the most tragic character in the entire Friel canon, Aedin Maloney has simply redefined the role, giving a haunting performance on the Rep’s stage that is alternatingly defiant and desolate.  I don’t think I have ever witnesses a Friel character played with such subtlety and conviction, and her performance alone is worth a ticket.

As Maggie, the spirited center of the house and the woman whose actions come to anchor it in Friel’s imagination (and the play), Jo Kinsella is ideally cast as the riotous sister who is the heart of the house.

But for all her spirit and sense of play, Kinsella also shows us that she can see the darkness falling all around her, and that awareness is ever present in this production.

I have seen this play performed by the original cast in the Abbey Theatre; I have even seen it performed in a tribute to Friel in the Glenties in Co. Donegal where it’s set, but I have never seen a more satisfying production. Don’t miss it.

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