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The Palm Beach Dramaworks' "Dancing at Lughnasa" is so real it hurts

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.

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.

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