GLOUCESTER — Hope seems to have been blasted away in the drab home inhabited by three Irish sisters in Gloucester Stage Company’s production of Enda Walsh’s knotty, fascinating “The New Electric Ballroom.’’ But memory is still very much present, in all its double-edged power.
Indeed, two of the three sisters are virtually imprisoned by their recollections of a single night in their youth — initially transcendent, ultimately devastating — when each of them caught the attention of a pop singer who briefly represented the possibility of deliverance from their dead-end lives.
A hallmark of Gloucester Stage for much of its history has been the presentation of challenging ensemble dramas, and this taut, darkly compelling production of “The New Electric Ballroom,’’ directed by Robert Walsh (no relation to the playwright), fits squarely within that tradition. It’s been a strong summer for the company, “Ballroom’’ having been preceded by first-rate productions of Richard Nelson’s “Sweet and Sad,’’ directed by Weylin Symes, and Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “Out of Sterno,’’ directed by Paula Plum.
Right from the start of “Ballroom,’’ which is laced with mordant humor and set in the present day in what is described as “a small fishing village on the west coast of Ireland,’’ we are plunged into a churning cauldron of words. Breda, played by Gloucester Stage mainstay Nancy E. Carroll, stands with her back to the audience and launches into a monologue that begins on an intricate, mischievously self-referential note: “By their nature people are talkers. You can’t deny that. You could but you’d be affirming what you’re trying to argue against and what would the point of that be?’’
And we’re off on a journey through the byzantine psychological mysteries of “Ballroom.’’ When Breda eventually turns around, her mouth is smeared with red lipstick. What ensues is a chilling ritual that, we later learn, has taken place countless times: After donning ’50s-era clothing, Breda and her sister Clara, portrayed by Marya Lowry, reenact their separate encounters with the pop star, which took place decades earlier at the venue of the title, after he uttered the not-terribly-romantic words: “Would you meet me after?’’
Their recollections — expertly endowed with the flickering, rise-and-fall rhythms of memory by lighting designer Russ Swift — are drenched in the acid of their sibling rivalry. For each, in different ways, the events of that long-ago evening add up to a story of betrayal; for each, too, it’s a wound they never recovered from.
Breda and Clara are egged on in their dueling narratives by Ada, who is two decades younger than her 60-something sisters. Played by Adrianne Krstansky, Ada is being wooed, after a fashion, by an awkward, good-natured fishmonger named Patsy, portrayed by Derry Woodhouse (excellent).
In certain superficial respects, “The New Electric Ballroom’’ may bring to mind Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,’’ but there are more resonant echoes of Harold Pinter and Martin McDonagh in the way Enda Walsh depicts the homefront as a strangely unsettling place and presents family life as an exercise in mutual hostage-taking.
Robert Walsh’s direction creates and sustains a claustrophobic aura on Jenna McFarland Lord’s set, which features a large door whose emphatic openings and closings underscore the play’s themes. Throughout, there is the palpable sense of a household where the past has a stranglehold on the present, a suggestion that all three sisters are locked in an unbreakable pattern across the generations.
Lowry, who is married to Robert Walsh, delivers a raw, emotionally rich performance as Clara, making her the sister who seems most irretrievably broken by her missed opportunity of decades ago. Carroll’s portrayal of Breda marries the aspects of ice and steel, the character etched with the imprint of experience, simultaneously frozen into near-immobility and still able to exert considerable control over her sisters.
Krstansky, who excelled as the nonstop talker Lola in Huntington Theatre Company’s recent production of William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba,’’ brings an intriguing ambiguity to the far less voluble character of watchful, poker-faced Ada. After Patsy reveals an unknown side of himself, Krstansky touchingly conveys Ada’s hesitant surrender to that scarce — and ill-advised? — quality: hope.
THE NEW ELECTRIC BALLROOM
Play by Enda Walsh
Directed by Robert Walsh
Set, Jenna McFarland Lord. Costumes, Miranda Giurleo. Lights, Russ Swift.
Sound, Arshan Gailus.
Gloucester Stage Company
At: Gorton Theatre, Gloucester, through Aug. 15
Tickets: $28, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.