Actor Tony Reilly as Michael recalls his youth in ”Dancing at Lughnasa” atPortland Stage.

Actor Tony Reilly as Michael recalls his youth in ”Dancing at Lughnasa” atPortland Stage.

An enormous illuminated moon appears and floats into the rafters as the opening scene of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” takes shape at Portland Stage inaugurating their 2015-16 theatrical season.

This grim drama of Irish family life is presented as a memory play narrated by one Michael Mundy, now well-advanced in years as he recalls his youth, reflecting back to 1937, when he was a small boy of 7. Michael grew up as a bastard son of one of the five Mundy sisters in a forlorn corner of Ireland. He is lorded over by a sorority of sisters, all spinsters.

Isolated by geography, poverty, and the constraints of Catholic morality, the sisters’ principle contact with the outside world is the erratic performance of a wireless radio they call Marconi. The doldrum of their hardscrabble existence is thankfully given a most welcomed reprieve when Marconi, the radio, in one of its rare moments of reception, blares dance music from its scratchy speaker. Swept away by the music, the sisters spark with a contagious vitality and lose themselves in an ecstatic exuberance of highstepping dance. This all too brief celebration reveals the repressed spirit that is simmering in their Christian souls begging for release.

The sisters revere and care for their only brother, a missionary priest returning to Ireland after 25 years ministering to a leper colony in Uganda. He returns home a broken man, barely able to walk and with a very loose grip on reality.

Although a Catholic priest, Brother Jack’s traditional orthodoxy has been thoroughly saturated with a reverence for a more pagan orientation to the world. His embrace of this non-christian heterodoxy is expressed in dreamy reveries that are poignant, yet embarrassingly dismissed by his sisters as the ramblings of mental lunacy.

The title word “Lughnasa” refers to the pagan feast of the Celtic sun god Lugh, the mythic lord of the harvest festival, traditionally celebrated the first week of August. The central theme of this play is the conflict between paganism and Catholic orthodoxy.

Although the Portland Stage production is very well-produced and well acted, this central theme is understated and not well illustrated.

Aside from that fabulous moon, the setting by Anita Stewart is austere. It’s a blanched landscape of dried reeds, rocks and textured sand. Although the play is set in the first week of August, not a speck of green is to be seen. The costuming follows suit in a palette of well-worn, drab, beige and tan.

There are moments of clever staging mixing frozen tableau with slow choreographed movement creating interesting stage pictures, but an infusion of a more robust Irish brio would have benefitted this production.

Author Brian Friel, Ireland’s celebrated playwright died the night before I saw the play on Oct. 3. He is fondly remembered for his “Philadelphia Here I Come” and his highly dramatic account of Ireland’s Bloody Sunday massacre in his marvelous work, “Freedom of the City.”

The director for “Dancing at Lughnasa” is Sally Wood, set design is by Anita Stewart, lighting is by Bryon Winn and Seth Asa Sengel is in charge of sound. The cast includes: Laura Houck as Sister Kate, Julie Jesneck as Sister Christine, Keira Keeley as Sister Rose, Emma O’Donnell as Sister Agnes, Tod Randolf as Sister Maggie, Paul Haley as Brother Jack, Tim Venable as Gerry, Michael’s Father, and Tony Reilly as Son Michael, Narrator.

Performance times for “Dancing at Lughnasa,” which runs through Oct. 25, are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Single adult ticket prices range from $37 to $47, student price is $20, and there is a $4 discount for seniors. For more information or to make reservations, call the the box office at 774- 0465 or email [email protected]

— Greg Morell reviews theatrical performances for the Journal Tribune.