By Nelson PressleyTuesday, March 30, 2010 Five adult sisters in a small Irish kitchen, their spirits dreadfully underfed: That's the landscape of Brian Friel's exquisite "Dancing at Lughnasa," a clear-eyed memory play loosely based on Friel's mother and aunts.
The family saga features eight roles, each rich with contradiction, and the moods blowing through that overcrowded kitchen are like the highs and depressions of heavy weather. The Keegan Theatre gets this; these Irish specialists have put together a plainly inexpensive but compelling production at the Church Street Theater.
This isn't the kind of bravura performance that "Lughnasa" can be (it was an international hit in the 1990s, and then a film with Meryl Streep). But it's smart, and it works.
Lughnasa (pronounced almost like "lunacy") is a pagan festival happening during the summer in which this drama unfolds. Some of the sisters want to go, but Kate -- the stern teacher, chief breadwinner and most dedicated Catholic among them -- suggests it wouldn't be appropriate. Nonetheless, when their balky radio lands on an inspiring tune, a ferocious dance unexpectedly sweeps up the sisters, who laugh and stomp like wild things in a mighty rumpus.
That's one of the hallmark scenes of modern theater, and although the staging by Mark A. Rhea and Abigail Isaac (with choreography by Kurt Boehm) doesn't nail it, a weird power still comes through. The tug of war between Christianity and paganism is on, with Friel skillfully raising questions of faith and conduct against a backdrop of harsh physical and spiritual deprivation.
The play is uncommonly well balanced. Conservative Kate has an especially pivotal role, and Kerri Rambow is blessedly nuanced in it. Rambow is a fine scold, but love and watchfulness come through, too. The characterization makes it clear that there will be no easy solutions.
The varied sisters include jolly Maggie (Susan Marie Rhea), who largely runs the house and instinctively defuses fights, and quiet Chris (Brianna Letourneau), the single mother of the unseen 7-year-old boy whose grown self (Colin Smith) recalls all this as he narrates the tale.
Agnes (Elizabeth Jernigan) knits gloves for practically no money and keeps a special eye on Rose (Emily Levey), the sister who is mentally unable to look after herself. The internal hierarchies, affinities and rivalries are well sorted among this alert ensemble.
Matthew Keenan is a trifle slow to become the charmer that Gerry -- the young boy's seldom-seen father -- should be, and as Jack, the sisters' elder brother, Kevin Adams doesn't seem fully steeped in the mists of a distant culture, despite the fact that Jack has been a missionary in Africa for 25 years.
That seems to have worked in reverse, for Jack (aging and ill) has returned in thrall to customs and rituals that simply aren't appropriate -- not in Friel's frequent setting of Ballybeg, Donegal, in 1936.
Yet there's an ache at large, and that's the play's deep and engaging subject, respectfully rendered in this modest performance. You see it in the sisters' faces, even during the inelegant, frenzied dancing: Something's got to give.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
Dancing at Lughnasa
by Brian Friel. Directed by Mark A. Rhea and Abigail Isaac. Set, George Lucas; costumes, Kelly Peacock; lights, Megan Thrift; sound design, Matthew Keenan. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through April 18 at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-892-0202 or visit http:/