<font size="3"> BEST THEATER COMPANY </font>

WINNER:

Palm Beach Dramaworks

Palm Beach Dramaworks doesn't just do theater, it does thea-tuh. If you want something more substantive than a frothy musical or slapstick comedy, then this is your troupe. For example, this season includes John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," Harold Pinter's "Old Times" and James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter."

And for the dramaphile who wants to go even deeper, there is the Master Playwright Series (erudite stage-readings and talkbacks) and the Musical Theatre Masters Series (full-length concert versions of Broadway classics).

(Pictured: Julie Rowe, from left, Margery Lowe, Gretchen Porro and Erin Joy Schmidt star in "Dancing at Lughnasa" at Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach.)

201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach, 561-514-4042
PalmBeachDramaworks.org

FINALISTS:

GableStage
1200 Anastasia Ave #230, Coral Gables, 305-446-1116
gablestage.org

Actors Community Theatre of Davie
6591 Orange Drive, Davie, 954-327-3941
davie-fl.gov

Body and Soul Dance Theatre
3183 SW 38th Ct., Coconut Grove , 305-441-2348
bodyandsoulmiami.com
(Alicia Donelan / Courtesy / May 28, 2013)

The play “Dancing at Lughnasa” draws you in Sensurround style, enveloping you so gently into its world that before you know it, you care … much more than you could have ever imagined.

The production from Palm Beach Dramaworks benefits from the combination of straightforward direction by J. Barry Lewis with taut and toned acting by a profoundly gifted cast.

For a little more than two hours with a 15-minute intermission, the show sends you back to 1936, when five sisters eke out a living in bucolic Ireland (thanks to Jeff Modereger’s well-balanced set).

Ah, but this memory play by Brian Friel has hidden snares. First, the five Mundy sisters have an elder brother, a priest, home after contracting malaria while working in a leper colony in Uganda. His fondness for the African customs he discovered there raises a suspicion that his illness isn’t the only reason the Catholic hierarchy cut him loose.


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Second, the play takes place in August during the Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasadh, and this paganism by “the hill people” is distasteful to some of the deeply faithful sisters. The Mundys hold their heads a little higher since they have a priest in the family, even if one sister has an illegitimate son. This son narrates the story as sincere — but not rosy — reminiscences.

Love has also found its way to the cottage, at least for three of the sisters, and for a shiny moment, there is hope. But even that (along with an economic crisis) threatens to shatter the tight-knit family. No matter. As the narrator reveals in a spoiler alert: This is the last summer in which they will all be together.

Isolated as the family is, the outside world comes in through intermittent broadcasts from a past-its-prime radio. And when the tension gets to be too much, and when there are no more words, the sisters dance in thrillingly staged moments that feel achingly real.

This production keeps itself as sharp and bracing as a splash of well water. You’ll find no warm fuzziness here, even though that dry, slightly sour Irish humor shows up in dashes. There isn’t a whiff of “thea-tuh” anywhere - just clear and resolute characterization from a cast tuned to perfection and well supported by a creative team in choreography, lighting, costuming and sound design.

After winning “Best Play” from both the Tony and Olivier Awards in 1991, “Dancing at Lughnasa” was made into a 1998 movie starring Meryl Streep.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” will run through June 16 at The Don and Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, and 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost $55. Call 561-514-4042 or PalmBeachDramaworks.org.