The last thing anyone needs is another “Dancing at Lughnasa,” the Brian Friel drama that made its debut 20 years ago before earning three Tony’s on Broadway and more acclaim for Meryl Streep in the subsequent movie version.
Fortunately, the drama about a rural Irish town in the Great Depression is in good hands on 14th Street, as the Gallery Players do a great job of making the work seem fresh and lively again.
This dialogue-driven drama centers on 7-year-old Michael Evans, who lives in a cottage with his single mother and four aunts. The schoolboy version of Evans never actually appears in the play; when the family addresses him, it is Evans the narrator who sets the scene, letting the audience know what his young self was thinking.
This Evans (played by Zac Hoogendyk) remembers certain events around the time of the harvest feast at Lughnasa, an annual pagan celebration that his aunts and mother want to attend. But their Catholic piety, poverty and lack of dates hold them back. Instead, they dance around their kitchen to their faulty radio.
Evans also muses on his uncle, Father Jack, who has just returned from missionary work at a leper colony in Uganda. Jack had been a local legend due to his travels, but Evans sees him reduced to a malaria-stricken man who can’t seem to adjust to life in Ireland after 25 years in Africa.
“Back at home,” is how Father Jack starts many stories about his time abroad.
Some of the strongest scenes involve Evans’s flaky father, a wandering Welshman named Gerry who always has some new job, new silly story and new promise to never keep. His casual comings and goings drive Evans’s mother, Chris, into bouts of depression. She is very much in love with Gerry, but rejects his annual marriage proposals because she knows he’s prone to disappearing for months at a time.
The play’s storylines are entirely dependent on the skills of the actors, who do a great job of unveiling their characters’ complexities. Susan Ferrara is particularly notable for her role as Kate, Evans’s oldest aunt and self-appointed family matriarch. Kate proclaims herself to be a “self-righteous bitch,” but shows that she is vulnerable when she confides that she may lose her job and worries about her simple-minded sister, Rose.
In addition to monumental occurrences, “Dancing at Lughnasa” explores religious conflict, as Kate’s stern monotheistic beliefs clash with her sisters’ interest in the pagan harvest festival, and also with Father Jack’s love for African rituals.
Another important theme is industrialization, which hits the household when Rose and her sister Agnes lose their jobs as knitters.
During his final monologue, Evans says that in his memories, “atmosphere are more real than incident.” But with “Dancing at Lughnasa,” The Gallery Players make both the poignant story’s atmosphere and its incidents seem as vivid as one’s own memories.
“Dancing at Lughnasa” at the Gallery Players [199 14th St. between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Park Slope, (718) 595-0547], through Dec. 19.