Family Ties, Struggles and a Taste of Ireland

April 12, 2018
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The company of “Dancing at Lughnasa” will be on stage at Two River Theater in Red Bank, April 14 – May 13. Photo by Yurik L. Lozano

By Mary Ann Bourbeau |

RED BANK – “Dancing at Lughnasa,” the winner of the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play, is coming to Two River Theater beginning Saturday, April 14.

Brian Friel’s play is set in the summer of 1936 during the Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasa, in County Donegal on the west coast of Ireland. The story revolves around the Mundy sisters, five unmarried women struggling to make ends meet in difficult economic times. Their brother, known as Father Jack, just returned home after 25 years serving as a missionary in a leper colony in Uganda. It’s a memory play, as told by Michael, the grown-up illegitimate son of one of the sisters. Michael looks back on two days in the life of the family, when everything seems to be on the brink of change.

“Before his death, Brian Friel was regarded as maybe the greatest living Irish playwright,” said Michael Cumpsty, who takes on the role of Jack.

In 1995, Cumpsty had a role on Broadway in Friel’s play, “Translations,” along with the late Donal Donnelly, who several years earlier played the role of Jack in “Dancing at Lughnasa” on Broadway.

“I was really fond of Donal Donnelly,” said Cumpsty. “He was brilliant. He inhabited this part in a way I really am working to get close to.”

Father Jack, who abandoned much of his Catholicism while in Uganda, returns home with malaria and memory issues. He is a completely different man than he was when he first left home.

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“It’s a complicated role that is based on a real uncle of Friel’s,” said Cumpsty. “You’re being led through the story by the narrator, a 7-year-old boy, who has a number of decades of perspective on the story he is telling. The fact that his Uncle Jack came back from Africa is thrilling – a man he thought of as a splendid figure.”

Michael finds it disconcerting when he sees his uncle is a sick old man.

“As with many Irish plays, there’s some darkness and sadness, but it’s balanced by an ecstatic sense of life, joy and extraordinary celebration,” said Cumpsty.

Cumpsty was born in England and lived in South Africa for several years. He discovered acting at age 8 when he was cast as Joseph in the school’s Nativity pageant. Even though he had no lines, he was hooked.

“I got the part and I didn’t look back,” he said.

His film and television credits include “Boardwalk Empire,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Eat Pray Love” and “The Ice Storm.” He made his Broadway debut in 1989; his many Broadway credits include “Copenhagen,” “42nd Street,” “Enchanted April” and “Sunday in the Park with George.” He was nominated for a Tony Award in 2012 for “End of the Rainbow.”

Cumpsty has directed and performed in several shows at Two River Theater and is pleased to be back in Red Bank again.

“This is an incredibly beautiful and functional theater,” he said. “As a playing space, it’s one of my favorite places. It’s elegantly designed, the acoustics are great and there’s an intimate connection with the audience, even the people in the back row.”

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Dancing at Lughnasa” also stars Megan Byrne, Meredith Garretson, Mylinda Hull, Cillian O’Sullivan, Christa Scott-Reed, Mandy Siegfried and Harry Smith. It is directed by Jessica Stone, whose previous credits include “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Absurd Person Singular.”

The Two River Theater has curated a series of events to complement the production. Travel Chat: A Taste of Ireland, will include an audio-visual presentation from CIE Tours on April 15. A Series of Irish Talks on April 16, curated by the producers of TEDxAsbury Park, includes three guest speakers, a Q&A and light refreshments. Meet-up with Madeleine on April 21, following the 3 p.m. performance, is a post-show discussion with Two River’s playwright-in-residence, Madeleine George. Patrons can enjoy refreshments and conversation on topics including Brian Friel, the play’s themes and elements of the production.

For 45 minutes before each performance, audiences have the opportunity to learn about Brian Friel and this production.

“These audience extras are a wonderful way of giving people context for the production they’re going to see,” said Cumpsty. “When they have this information going in, it makes for a much richer experience.”

Post-play conversations with a cast member and a member of Two River’s artistic staff will take place following the performances on April 25 at 7 p.m., April 29 at 3 p.m. and May 2 at 1 p.m.

Performances begin on April 14 and run through May 13. Tickets are $40 to $70 and are available at 732-345-1400 or

Arts and entertainment writer Mary Ann Bourbeau can be reached at

This article was first published in the March 29-April 5, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.



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