There's a beautifully disturbing undercurrent of change in Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa."
It's 1936 in rural Ireland, and 7-year-old Michael goes to school now. Radios are displacing gramophones as a source of entertainment. And the world order is starting to buckle, too, with civil war flaring in what seems like far-away Spain.
Friel's writing creates an exquisite snapshot of a family frozen for a moment in time, and Mad Cow Theatre's production expertly conveys that summer on the brink in a heartfelt, emotional staging by director Katrina Ploof.
An adult Michael narrates the story as he remembers the summer from his childhood. Born to an unmarried mother, he lived with her and her four sisters — also all unmarried — on the family homestead in County Donegal.
Though they clearly live in poverty — sister Maggie speaks of stretching three eggs among eight people for "tea," or dinner — the family is full of affection for one another, including the most recent addition to the household. That's brother Jack, a Catholic missionary to Uganda who has returned to Ireland under somewhat mysterious circumstances after 25 years abroad.
What's so particularly lovely about this production is how Ploof uses the text and the stage to keep the sisters from being stereotypes. Reading character sketches, it would be so easy to say Kate is the decorous, bossy one. Or Maggie is the earthy one. Or Rose is the simple one. But the audience sees that these women are so much more than pat descriptions.
It's there in the way Marion Marsh, as Kate, can't help but smile when she sees young lovers Christine and Gerry dance, even if she disapproves. Or Robin Olson, as Maggie, warning a forward-thinking sister half seriously, half comically, "Today it's lipstick, tomorrow it will be the gin bottle."
Both women also get heartbreaking moments, as Kate frets about the future and Maggie is overcome thinking about a friend from the past.
To watch the women dance (choreography is by Ploof and Ellie Potts Barrett) is to see their characters expressed physically: Sara Catherine Barnes, as Rose, dancing with childlike glee; Marsh's Kate a bit aloof with properly precise steps; an internal intensity from Agnes (Dorah Fine, who always keeps the audience aware that Agnes' still waters run deep).
Piper Patterson, as Michael's mother Christine, radiates hope in her smile, even as her eyes knowingly flash skepticism when Michael's dad, cheerful rogue Gerry (Connor Marsico, effortlessly charming) says he wants to settle down with her.
Bobbie Bell brings a twinkle to befuddled Jack, and as Michael, Brian Brightman tells his family's story with sincerity and a simple directness free of false sentimentality. As he moves around the periphery of a simple cottage kitchen (beautifully designed by Alan Reynolds), his words will make you want to take these special sisters to your heart and never let them go.
'Dancing at Lughnasa'
• What: A Mad Cow Theatre production of the Brian Friel play
• Length: 2:25, including intermission
• Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando
• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and two Mondays, Feb. 13 and 27; 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through March 4.
• Tickets: $32; $30 seniors and students; $15 on Mondays
• Call: 407-297-8788