The cast of the Brian Friel play “Dancing at Lughnasa” conjures a slice of Irish life in the 1930s, in the Two River Theater production on stage beginning this weekend in Red Bank.  (Photo by Yurik L. Lozano)

Published in the Asbury Park Press, April 13 2018

“It’s one of the great plays of the twentieth century,” says the director Jessica Stone of her latest project for Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company. “And it’s because of how universal its themes are.”

While its characters, cultural references and conflicts are very much of a piece with its setting in the Irish countryside of 1936, there is a certain quality to Dancing at Lughnasa that resonates with audiences in the here and the now…and when Two River’s John Dias suggested Brian Friel’s Tony- and Olivier award winning 1990 play to Stone, the director “jumped at” the chance to “explore this world; to explore the bond of these five sisters, and the ways in which we live through our memories.”

Kicking off a month-long limited engagement this weekend at Two River’s mainstage Rechnitz Theater, the production represents something of a hat-trick for Stone, a young veteran Broadway actress (her credits include the 2011 revival of Anything Goes, and a debut as Frenchy in the 1994 staging of Grease) who has credited the late New England-based theater legend Nicholas Martin with mentoring her journey from player to professional director. It’s a road that’s seen her helm some acclaimed projects throughout the eastern United States, including a 2014 Boston staging of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike that carried on in the spirit of Martin’s Tony-lauded Broadway production — and for Two River, the Alan Ayckbourn comedy Absurd Person Singular, plus her own all-male, all-madcap take on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Set in a rural environment of persistent poverty, complicated family dynamics and crises of faith, Dancing at Lughnasa would seem on the surface to be something of a change-up for the experienced purveyor of “Comedy Tonight” — but, as Stone maintains, “it doesn’t feel like a departure…in some ways it is a comedy. Painful and bittersweet, in the way that most comedy is at its core.” 

“The impulses that drive a comedic story are the same as with a drama…it’s about how we look at and deal with pain,” explains the director whose next scheduled project is the classic romcom Barefoot in the Park by Neil Simon. “That’s why I love comedy so much; it’s a way to make sense of our situation.”

A “memory play” conveyed through the childhood recollections of the grown-up Michael Evans (Harry Smith), Lughnasa (the title references the Celtic harvest festival with its pagan roots) finds its big heart in its portrayal of the five Mundy sisters — pious, hard-working eldest sister and surrogate mother Kate (Megan Byrne), directionless youngest daughter and unwed mom Chris (Meredith Garretson), de facto homemaker and secret dreamer Maggie (Mylinda Hull), quietly struggling Agnes (Christa Scott-Reed), and sweetly trusting Rose (Mandy Siegfried). Arguing, consoling, despairing and even deliriously dancing their way through a County Donegal summer, the women vie to keep their household intact against the looming changes and challenges of the uncertain times ahead — an equilibrium thrown off balance by the intermittent appearances of Gerry (Cillian O’Sullivan); wayward traveling-salesman father to the boy, and a figure who seems equal parts passion and privacy. 

While the majority of the players are making their local debuts, the cast also features an actor whose affiliation with the company borders on that of Artist in Residence: Tony nominee and Obie winner Michael Cumpsty, who adds the role of Father Jack — older brother to the sisters Mundy; lapsed Catholic and seasoned missionary whose travels to Africa have rendered him a changed man — to a gallery that includes Two River turns in Absurd, The Lion in Winter, Present Laughter, and many more by everyone from Will (Shakespeare) to (August) Wilson.

“The audience can connect with Michael’s relationship to each of his aunts, and to his mother,” Stone observes. “And we wonder why this guy is reliving that particular time in his life…what memory has a new clarity to him, and what has stayed reliable through the years?”

“Even though we learn how things work out” — a reference to a passage in which the adult Michael describes the characters’ paths in the years following the play’s action — “there’s still a sense that we don’t know what’s right around the corner…still room to love, to hope, to fight, to be bored, and to dance.” 

Going up in previews on Saturday, April 14, Dancing At Lughnasa opens on Friday, April 20 and continues its limited engagement with a mix of matinee and evening performances through May 13. Tickets ($20 – $70) and schedule info can be had by calling 732-345-1400 — or by visiting http://www.tworivertheater.org, where you’ll find details on a slate of related “Inside Two River” events that include a “Taste of Ireland” audio-visual presentation (April 15), and “A Series of Irish Talks” co-curated by the producers of the TEDxAsburyPark conference (April 16).