Five Irish sisters and a Chinese family on New Jersey stages

Playwright Bran Friel has been called “the Irish Chekhov.” (Friel died in 2015 at 86.)  Like the plays of that century-earlier Russian author, Friel’s are character-driven rather than story-driven, with an emphasis on family relationships. Friel’s best-known, “Dancing at Lughnasa,” is no exception. Centering as it does on five Irish sisters, the 1992 Tony and Olivier Award-winning play recalls Chekhov in more than just the number of sisters. “Lughnasa” is lighter than Chekhovian in tone, but no less sparing of realities that challenge and in some cases overwhelm the characters.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” bares the souls of the five unmarried Mundy sisters in County Donegal in the summer of 1936, filtered through the memory of Michael (Harry Smith) the grown “love child” of one of the sisters. Michael’s narration weaves through the play, introducing some segments, clarifying others and revealing heart-rending developments in a disconcertingly casual manner that nonetheless adds emotional heft.

Playing the Mundy sisters of Donegal (from left): Mandy Siegfried, Mylinda Hull, Megan Byrne, Meredith Garretson, Christa Scott-Reed

Kate (Megan Byrne), the eldest and default matriarch, teaches school; unsettled Agnes (Christa Scott-Reed) and the sweet, childlike youngest, Rose (Mandy Siegfried), hand-knit gloves for sale in the town. Together with deeply yearning Maggie (Mylinda Hull) and Michael’s unsettled mother Chris (Meredith Garretson), they care for their brother Jack (Michael Cumpsty), a Jesuit returned from a twenty-five year ministry in a Ugandan leper colony. There’s also Michael at age seven, unseen even as addressed by the others, and voiced by Smith from off to the side. (The Friel-mandated device works perfectly.)

Michael Cumpsty and Christa Scott-Reed [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

The Two River cast, which also includes Cillian O’Sullivan as Chris’s itinerant paramour and Michael’s father, functions as a unit. On designer Tobin Ost’s finely detailed set and aided by Jason Lyons’ mood-enhancing lighting, Jessica Stone’s sensitive direction shifts and isolates emphasis among the sisters in sync with the playwright.

Cillian O’Sullivan and Meredith Garretson

While we see enacted much of what Michael is remembering, it is almost as if it were our own memories playing out. The actual events, the particular sisters, are not our recollections, but Friel’s play affirms that some memories “owe nothing to fact” and that often, “atmosphere is more real than incident, and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.”

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is an atmospheric play that blends reality and illusion. Two River’s exceptional production will linger in memory.

         Through May 13 at Two River Theater, Red Bank NJ. Performances Wed at 1pm and 7pm; Thurs and Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3pm. Tickets ($40-$70): 732-345-1400 or at

If good intentions were all, “Issei, He Say (or the Myth of the First)” would win a Pulitzer Prize. Chloé Hung’s play (her second written), world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company, is a discourse on an admittedly sore topic, but one deserving of more nuanced treatment than the play offers.

That topic is the internment of Japanese people during World War II, despite their long-established residence and even citizenship in – wait for it – Canada. (Long aware of that odious history in the United States, I had not known of it north of the border.)

The play’s POV is that of thirteen-year-old Lucy Chu (Christina Liang), whose family (Kathleen Kwan and Fenton Li play her parents) had emigrated from China to a Toronto suburb – not, the point is made, to that city’s Chinatown. Their Japanese next-door neighbor, Mr. Yamamoto (Stan Egi) had been interned during the war. (The time-set seems earlier than its designated 1969.)

          Christina Liang (in window), Stan Igi (foreground), Kathleen Kwan and Fenton Li [Photo: SuzAnne Barabas]

         The first act establishes schoolgirl Lucy’s assimilation, her mother’s attempts at same and her father’s hostility toward the congenial neighbor. But for dad’s intransigence, it is, in fact, a rather endearing forty minutes, with Lucy and mom getting on very well with Mr. Y in their shared front yard (rendered perfectly by designer Jessica Parks).

Alas, the second act (also forty minutes) devolves into a formula sermon: establish the problem (well-founded resentment); take a side; state your case (twice maybe); and seque to a sentimental wrap-up.

No one would suggest that separating families and shoving people into virtual prisons based on their ethnicity is anything but barbaric. Well- acted by all four and directed smoothly by Lisa James (references more to first-act than second) “Issei, He Say” makes that point – loud, clear and in ABC fashion.

Through May 20 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances Thurs and Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3 and 8; Sun at 2pm. Tickets ($46): 732-229-3166 or at