None of the actors in the Justice Theater Project's production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa have an Irish accent in real life, but it's impossible to tell while you're in the auditorium at Cardinal Gibbons High School. For two hours and an intermission, they are an Irish family in 1936, and every word and gesture feels authentic.
Friel's work is a memory play, the sort that will continue to exist as long as literary types are convinced others will care about their lousy childhoods. But rather than the dark events of such Irish memoirs as My Left Foot or Angela's Ashes, Dancing at Lughnasa is about the oceans of calm between tumult and tragedy. It's a thoroughly convincing slice of Irish life, and it feels lived-in, from the dialogue to the cast's interactions to the set designed by Rebecca Buck, Lexie Nichols and Deb Royals.
Ryan Brock plays the narrator, Michael Evans, who stands beside his younger self (Adam Sichel) as he relives moments from a fateful summer, when he was a child living with the five sisters of the Mundy family. Michael is the illegitimate son of the youngest Mundy, Christina (Betsy Henderson), who is strung along by his father, the smooth-talking Gerry Evans (Jason Sharp). Uptight Kate (Susannah Hough) is a schoolteacher and unofficial den mother of the group; brash Maggie (Leanne Heintz) enjoys riddles and defusing conflict, sullen Agnes (Renee Wimberly) knits and contemplates, and Rose (Christine Zagrobelny) is an innocent with an undiagnosed mental disability who has drawn the attention of a potentially dangerous, unseen local boy.
Rounding out this group is Father Jack (Michael Keough, alternating with John Honeycutt), the sole brother of the group, whose stay as a missionary in Uganda was cut short not so much by malaria as his admiration for the natives' unconventional lifestyle. It's a lifestyle subtly echoed by the Mundy family, with the spinster sisters serving as a makeshift community, albeit one barely holding on through poverty, hardship and dysfunction that Michael tells us will only worsen with time.
But the play's focus isn't on melodrama but on daily drama: the sisters dancing to the novelty wireless radio, Father Jack's rambling monologues on Ugandan life, Gerry and Christina teasing the possibility of a marriage that will never happen. This is a true ensemble piece, where the key to making it work is to believe that these characters are a family. The chemistry among Dancing at Lughnasa's ensemble is what makes the drama come together, with Brock, Henderson and Sharp standing out among the many talented players.
Dancing at Lughnasa is a subtly devastating work; the fates of many characters are not what one would wish on his worst enemy. But the familial atmosphere engendered by the cast reinforces the idea that tragedy is most painful when there is something to lose, and that the memory of the good times is what lingers on.