Playwright Brian Friel had 24 plays published in his 50 plus year career. He was often referred to as the “Irish Chekhov” and in his most famous and successful play, Dancing at Lughnasa, he outdid Chekhov’s The Three Sisters with the five Mundy sisters and their brother Jack. It’s a memory play with the adult Michael (Michael Knowles) reminiscing about the summer of 1936, when he was seven. He lived with his unwed mother and four aunts in a small cottage on the outskirts of the village of Ballybeg in County Donegal. His Uncle Jack, a Catholic missionary, had just returned home after more than 25 years of work at a leper colony in Uganda. The poverty of the Mundy clan is reminiscent of the Wingfields of Tennessee Williams’ classic memory play The Glass Menagerie. In both plays the leading male acts as narrator and also gives glimpses of what befalls the characters after the time depicted in the play. Actors Co-Op has mounted an endearing, touching, funny and joyous revival, directed with a sure hand and a keen sense of mood and character by Heather Chesley.
Kate (Nan McNamara) is the eldest sister and as a schoolteacher the main source of income for the family. Maggie (Rory Patterson) is the chief homemaker and the “joker” of the family, always ready with a quip or a riddle. Agnes (Maurie Speed) is the mediator and the guardian of the developmentally challenged Rose (Tannis Hanson),the mind of a young child in the body of a 32 year old woman. Chris (Lauren Thompson) is the youngest and the dreamiest. She harbors hope that the charming wastrel Gerry Evans (Stephen Van Dorn) might someday follow through with his marriage proposals. But Evans is even more of a dreamer as well as a salesman who can’t sell. Although he loves to dance and woo the women, he seeks some adventure and signs up with the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Jack (Mark Bramhall), stricken with malaria and fighting to remember the proper English words after nearly three decades of speaking Swahili, upsets his sisters with his loving descriptions of the pagan rituals he participated in at his leper colony.
Friel has crafted a masterful recreation of a specific place and time and his characters are distinctive and richly nuanced. The cast fits their roles like a hand knitted glove, the piecework that Agnes and Rose diligently do day after day. It’s a bleak life but it does have its moments of boisterous joy, mostly thanks to the “Marconi” wireless that brings music into the household when it sees fit to work. When the sisters break loose with the unfettered jubilance of dance, the audience can’t help but take them into their hearts.
Crossley Theatre, 1760 N Gower St. in Hollywood. Ends June 12. 323-462-8460 or www.actorsco-op.org.