GLOUCESTER — There comes a moment in the fine Gloucester Stage Company production of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa’’ when music suddenly blasts from a balky old radio and all five Mundy sisters respond by throwing themselves with wild abandon into a dance across their kitchen.
They whirl and jig and gyrate, accelerating faster and faster; one even dances on a table. A whiff of desperation accompanies this terpsichorean frenzy, as if the sisters are not just reveling in the moment but are releasing years of pent-up disappointment at other joys glimpsed but too seldom touched.
Eventually the radio goes on the fritz again and the sisters subside back into their lives again. But change is coming for the Mundys, though they seem locked in stasis during the summer of 1936 in their home in the countryside, located in Ireland’s County Donegal outside the village of Ballybeg. That change will arrive quietly but with devastating force.
A certain Russian master also specialized in quiet devastation among residents of the provinces, and “Dancing at Lughnasa’’ makes it clear why Friel, who died in 2015, was known as the Irish Chekhov. Director Benny Sato Ambush underscores that connection by imparting a Chekhovian rhythm and mood to the Gloucester Stage production. Winner of the 1992 Tony Award for best play, “Dancing at Lughnasa’’ is suffused with a melancholy sense that (as with Chekhov) the volubility of the sisters represents their (ultimately inadequate) armor against their straitened circumstances and the inexorability of their fates.
In sustaining that push-pull tension between what is and what will be, director Ambush capitalizes on the virtuosity of actress Lindsay Crouse, who again demonstrates her acuteness when it comes to locating, then distilling in an intensely concentrated fashion, the essence of a character. Ambush and Crouse previously collaborated to equally good effect at Gloucester Stage in 2013’s “Driving Miss Daisy’’ and 2016’s “Lettice and Lovage.’’
Here, Crouse plays Kate, the careworn eldest sister, and it’s a performance of searching depth that lets us see both Kate’s fear and her fortitude. As a teacher in a parish school, Kate is the only regular wage-earner among the Mundys, but now, for reasons that she can only guess at, she has been told that she may not have her job much longer. Might it have to do with the fact that another family member, Father Jack, a priest, has returned to Ireland after 25 years of missionary work and seems in no hurry to return to the pulpit, preferring instead to dwell on the rituals he learned in Africa? Father Jack is played capably enough by Paddy Swanson, though Swanson was somewhat inaudible at times in the performance I attended, but a little of Jack goes a long way, frankly.
Agnes (Bryn Austin) and Rose (Samantha Richert) bring in a little income by hand-knitting gloves at home, but even those paltry earnings are threatened by a new factory. The irreverent, cigarette-smoking Maggie (Jennie Israel) occupies herself as the family housekeeper and cook, meager though most meals are. Chris (Cassie Gilling), the youngest, is the unwed mother of 7-year-old Michael, whose charming but unreliable father, Gerry, keeps wandering back into Chris’s life. As portrayed with loose-limbed brio by recent Salem State University graduate Chris Kandra (a find), Gerry is one of those rogues who seems to believe his own blarney. Chris is always just on the verge of succumbing to his charms; when Kandra and Gilling team up for a slow dance outside the Mundy cottage it casts a dreamlike spell.
We never see the childhood version of Michael; “Dancing at Lughnasa’’ is a memory play, narrated by the adult version of Michael (well played by the always-solid Ed Hoopman), and young Michael’s lines are spoken by Hoopman. He always stands just to the side of the empty space being addressed by the other characters. The effect of this there-but-not-there blocking is to commingle present, past, and future. Speaking to us with wistfulness and perhaps a trace of guilt, the adult Michael admits that he was “happy to escape.’’ Those left behind were not as lucky. In “Dancing at Lughnasa,’’ the precariousness of their existence is memorably given voice by Crouse’s Kate.
“You work hard at your job,’’ says Kate. “You try to keep the home together. You perform your duties as best you can — because you believe in responsibilities and obligations and good order. And then suddenly, suddenly, you realize that hair cracks are appearing everywhere; that control is slipping away, that the whole thing is so fragile it can’t be held together much longer.’’
DANCING AT LUGHNASA
Play by Brian Friel. Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, through July 8. Tickets $35-$45, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.comDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin