Brian Friel’s achingly lyrical memory play, “Dancing at Lughnasa” is set in that fateful August when the Mundy family of Ballybeg, Ireland, is enjoying, unwittingly, their last precious moments together.
At the Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls, director Pamela Moller Kareman has assembled a bumper crop of talent for this harvest story, in a breathtaking production superbly acted and directed with the lightest touch.
It is intended to run through April 3. One can only hope for an extension so more audiences might experience its power.
“Lughnasa” — pronounced “LOO-nuh-suh” — begins with a family tableau, seven actors bathed in the warm glow of David Pentz’s lights.
Then the story’s eighth character — its narrator, Michael, played by the excellent Michael McMonagle — steps forward to deliver the lovely opening line: “When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936 different kinds of memories offer themselves to me.”
Michael was seven that summer. He is grown now. But two memories — or, rather, the feelings tied to those memories — are clear.
That was the summer the Mundy family got its first radio, which they dubbed “Marconi,” because that was the name on the front of it.
And it was the summer that the family’s missionary brother and Ballybeg hero, Father Jack, “the leper priest,” returned home from 25 years in Africa, his body racked by malaria, his mind losing its grip. Exactly why Jack is back is revealed over the course of the evening.
For two hours, we get to know and love the Mundy sisters: Kate (Cheryl Orsini), the schoolteacher and de facto matriarch; Agnes (Tessa Zugmeyer), the quiet knitter with a lovely calm; Maggie (Heather Girardi), the jokester; Chris (Quinn Cassavale), Michael’s mother who had the boy without benefit of wedlock; and Rose (Lauren Currie Lewis), the childlike innocent.
And we meet the two men who factor into that summer’s memory: Gerry (Billy Lyons), Michael’s here-and-gone father; and Jack (John Tyrrell), the malarial priest who is working to regain his native tongue which long ago gave way to Swahili.
Jason Bolen’s set is just lovely, rimmed in nature and all simplicity.
The tiny stage is so chock full of spellbinding performances, you might wish for eight pairs of eyes to watch each actor at work. No matter where you cast your glance, you’ll see fully formed characters existing in that moment with no sign of artifice, only art.
Witness Cassavale melt when her man dances with her sister.
See the glint in Zugmeyer’s eyes as Rose spins a story of an afternoon out.
Wonder at the panoply of emotions at play on Lewis’ expressive face as Maggie tells a doleful tale of a long-ago dance.
Feel the weight of responsibility on Orsini’s shoulders as Kate ponders the future.
Watch as Girardi absentmindedly plays with the soda-bread dough on her hands as she listens.
These Mundy women are as flesh-and-blood as can be in these wordless flashes of simplicity and genius.
When words are required, kudos on fine accent work, aided by dialect coach Rich Orlow.
As Jack, Tyrrell mixes confusion and wonder, as the fallen priest regales his sisters with stories of Ugandan ceremonies that sound less Catholic than the ladies might have hoped.
As Gerry, Billy Lyons strikes the requisite note of another-opportunity-just-around-the-corner that marks the Irish optimist.
In one of the play’s most memorable scenes, the sisters let down their hair and dance full out, without a care, to the music provided by Marconi. Out flows their yearning, passion and fire — things otherwise well-hidden.
Playwright Friel won the Tony Award in 1992 for “Dancing at Lughnasa,” and he’s at the top of his powers here, nimbly juxtaposing Michael’s dispassionate narration with the passion, humor and desperation that filled that well-kept cottage all those summers ago.
As happens in life, Friel leaves so much unsaid, so much hinted at, so many blanks for us to fill in, connections for us to make.
There is poetry in Friel’s language, and genius, too.
After we’ve gotten to know everyone, Michael fast-forwards to the present day and tells us what became of all of them: how they lived and how they died. It makes us look at them all with new eyes, knowing what lies ahead. It deepens the ache one feels for them.
McMonagle rightly takes his time with his monologues and the final words, poetic and strong, bring the piece to a fully satisfying end.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” is about the power of memory and the Schoolhouse production is thick with theatrical memories in the making.
Don’t miss it.
“Dancing at Lughnasa”: The Schoolhouse Theater, 3 Owens Road, Croton Falls, just off exit 8 on I-684. Through April 3. 8 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays; 4 p.m., Sundays. $30 on Thursdays and Fridays; $32 on Saturdays and Sundays. 914-277-8477. The Schoolhouse Theater website.
‘Brownsville’ moves: Elaine del Valle’s wonderful “Brownsville Bred,” the theater’s first mainstage production of the season, is the next of the Schoolhouse’s productions to make the move Off-Broadway. Artistic director Pamela Moller Kareman directs del Valle in the one-woman show at 59E59 Studios starting July 14.
Top photo by Ron Marotta: The Mundy women let loose in “Dancing at Lughnasa” at the Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls. They are, from left: Cheryl Orsini (Kate); Lauren Currie Lewis (Rose); Quinn Cassavale (Chris); Tessa Zugmeyer (Agnes) and Heather Girardi (Maggie).
Second photo by Ron Marotta: From left: Heather Girardi (Maggie); Lauren Currie Lewis (Rose); Cheryl Orsini (Kate); Quinn Cassavale (Chris); and Tessa Zugmeyer (Agnes).