Portland Stage Company opened its season Friday with “Dancing at Lughnasa,” capturing the resilient spirit of the Irish and providing a moving tribute to the memory of beloved actress Susan Reilly.

The Portland-area theater community was rocked last December by the tragic news that American Irish Repertory Ensemble (AIRE) co-founders Susan and Tony Reilly were involved in a multi-car pileup on the Massachusetts Turnpike that left Susan dead and Tony with one leg. “Dancing at Lughnasa” was one of Susan’s favorite plays and was part of AIRE’s 2004-2005 inaugural season.

The play is set in County Donegal, Ireland in 1936, during the festival of Lughnasa, an ancient Gaelic funeral celebration to mark the death of the earth goddess and the beginning of the fall harvest. Portland Stage has dedicated this production of “Dancing at Lughnasa” to Susan, a woman who embodied the Irish spirit and brought joy to so many people.

Opening night offered an emotional performance that kicked off with Artistic Director Anita Stewart pausing to remember both Susan Reilly and “Dancing at Lughnasa” playwright Brian Friel, who had died earlier that day. Stewart also remarked on the celebratory nature of the performance, which marked the play’s 25th anniversary.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” gives the audience a personal two-day look into the lives of five unmarried Irish sisters, played by Laura Houck (Kate), Julie Jesneck (Chris), Keira Keeley (Rose), Emma O’Donnell (Agnes) and Tod Randolph (Maggie). All live with their ailing brother Jack (Paul Haley), a missionary priest who has recently returned home after 25 years of service in Africa. Chris has a 7-year-old son with absentee Welsh playboy Gerry (Tim Venable).

The Mundy family lives in poverty, with little opportunity, and is largely shunned by society for not following the expected path of marriage and modesty. Despite their circumstances, the sisters maintain hope and a zest for life, defiantly expressed through dance, as they listen to a wireless radio — nicknamed Marconi — in the family kitchen.

Michael, grown and recalling long-ago memories of his family and the hardships and joys they experienced, serves as the narrator (Tony Reilly). In a captivating moment, Tony Reilly slowly walked onto the stage to the lilting notes of “The Isle of Capri” emanating from a small music box that had belong to Susan Reilly. An enormous harvest moon backlit the set, adding to the emotional impact of the scene.

The strength and perseverance that Reilly has shown since the accident less than a year ago translates in “Dancing at Lughnasa.” Genuine pain showed in his eyes as he watched the Mundy family’s story unfold on stage. But, Tony has a unquenchable vivacity that allowed him to emulate the enthusiasm and curiosity of a 7-year-old boy.

Portland Stage has chosen a strong cast that captures the poignant feeling of “Dancing at Lughnasa.” The sisters’ unique personalities are vivid, providing a multifaceted story. And, the five actresses’ lively Irish dancing and singing energize the play.

Haley’s deadpan delivery brings both humor and dramatic effect to his complex character. And, Venable’s irresistible charm allowed the audience to understand how Chris keeps foolishly falling under Gerry’s spell.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is a well-timed piece that is both tragic and hopeful. The play beautifully reminds that, amidst hardship and pain, the love and support of family and friends offers the strength to persevere.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. Contact her at: [email protected]

Twitter: @ahboyle

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