Playing Michael, the narrator of “Dancing at Lughnasa,” Harry Smith has a dreamy glow in his eyes and occasionally lets out a warm chuckle. The play, currently being presented at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, portrays a troubled but loving family in the summer of 1936, in County Donegal, on the West Coast of Ireland. It’s based on playwright’s Brian Friel’s own memories, and he writes with a rare musicality, building to an absolute rhapsody in some of the monologues.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” (pronounced “loo-nah-sa”), which won the 1992 Tony for Best Play (and was also made into a film, co-starring Meryl Streep, in 1998), is sometimes called a “memory play,” meaning its scenes spring from the memories of a single character. While things do happen to the family in the course of the play, it’s more of a meditative evocation of a time and place than a strongly plotted story. So, it’s not for everyone. At the same time, much is revealed from scene to scene: What these people are all about, how they interact with each other, the often unspoken understandings that are a part of the dynamics of every family.
The scene at the end of the first act in particular is easily one of the best things I’ve scene on a stage this year. Family members, some eagerly and some reluctantly, join each other in a dance, their distinct personalities merging until they become, for a moment, a single, pulsing unit. (Jessica Stone is the director, and Connor Gallagher the choreographer).
In addition to Michael, who is 7 at the time of the play but played by the adult Harry Smith (or, at times, invisible to the audience), the characters include Michael’s unmarried mother, Chris (Meredith Garretson), his charming but reluctant-to-settle-down father, Gerry (Cillian O’Sullivan), and his four unmarried aunts: Bossy, old-fashioned Kate (Megan Byrne), upbeat, energetic Maggie (Mylinda Hull), quiet, protective Agnes (Christa-Scott Reed) and Rose (Mandy Siegfried), who seems a bit childlike even though she is a grown woman.
The five sisters also have a brother: Jack (Michael Cumpsty), a priest who had been doing missionary work in Uganda for 25 years, and who recently has returned with malaria. Possibly even more upsetting, at least to Kate, he also has brought back an affection for the non-Christian beliefs of the Africans he has been living among.
Money is tight, harder times seem to be looming, and one characters undergoes a traumatic event. Michael tells us, near the end of the play, that after that summer of 1936, things did indeed get worse.
Yet these seven adults seem to create, for Michael, a rich world of infinite possibility. Everything — Friel’s poetic writing, the warmth that the actors exude, even scenic designer Tobin Ost’s vibrantly rustic set and costume designer’s Gabriel Berry’s comfortable-looking country clothes — conspires to create a sense of a welcoming world, full of joy though also tinged with tragedy.
It’s no wonder that Michael, even though he is now older and wiser, seems to be lost in a reverie as he tells us what his world was once like.