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Irish Rep’s Fine ’Dancing’ Taps Radio Days, Lost Youth: Review

Ciaran O'Reilly as Michael in the revival of Brian Friel's award-winning "Dancing at Lughnasa" in New York. Photographer: Carol Rosegg/Shirley Herz Associates via Bloomberg

The “wireless” takes center stage in Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,” the Tony Award-winning play set in the summer of 1936 that New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre is reviving in style.

Long before iPhones and BlackBerrys, the radio was the gadget beloved for its power to transport. Called the Marconi here, the radio provides the music for cathartic dancing by five lonely sisters, as language surrenders to movement.

“This ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way to speak,” says Michael (Ciaran O’Reilly), the middle-aged narrator looking back on his mother and four aunts, “to whisper private and sacred things, to be in touch with some otherness.”

The sisters grapple with hard lives differently. Kate (Orlagh Cassidy), a 40-year-old teacher and the only wage earner, is careful and maternal. Maggie (Jo Kinsella), the 38-year-old housekeeper, is a vivacious dreamer while Rose (Aedin Moloney), a 32-year-old knitter, comes off as a reckless fantasist.

The memory play is set in the kitchen and garden of the Mundy family house in the fictional Donegal town of Ballybeg. Michael also speaks the lines of his seven-year-old self, who was born to the youngest of the sisters, unmarried Chris (Annabel Hagg).

The tale, sensitively acted and gracefully directed by Charlotte Moore (with elegant choreography by Barry McNabb), unfolds just before Ballybeg and its environs are about to be transformed by industry. Michael’s charming, absentee father (Kevin Collins) shows up, making promises he’s unlikely to keep. Also on hand is befuddled Uncle Jack (Michael Countryman), a missionary just returned from years in Uganda.

Jack may briefly remind us of a hit Broadway musical involving Mormons. And Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” heard on the Marconi, is the title of another current hit Broadway show. But the “Lughnasa,” by turns joyous and tragic, is unlike anything else in New York at the moment.

Through Dec. 11 at 132 W. 22nd St. Information: +1-212-727-2737; Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Philip Boroff is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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