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Brian Friel dies at 86; 'Irish Chekhov' won Tony for 'Dancing at Lughnasa'

Brian Friel dies at 86; 'Irish Chekhov' won Tony for 'Dancing at Lughnasa'
Brian Friel poses for a photo in a Dublin theater on Sept. 11, 2009. (Niall Carson / Associated Press)

Brian Friel wasn't a household name in the U.S., but within the theater world, and especially among Irish actors, the playwright was a beloved figure whose poetically loquacious dramas provided juicy roles and plum character parts for many notable performers, including a young Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea.

Friel, whose death at 86 was announced Friday by Ireland's Arts Council, was often referred to as the Irish Chekhov, a label that spoke to his gift for capturing the messy, often humorous foibles of family life.

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He died at his home in Greencastle, County Donegal, after a long illness, according to BBC News.

His work reached its commercial apex with "Dancing at Lughnasa," his stage drama about three adult sisters that won three Tony Awards in 1992, including for best play, and later became a movie starring Meryl Streep. His plays "Faith Healer" and "Translations" are regularly revived by theater companies around the world.

Streep paid tribute to Friel as "a tender dramatist, an insightful humanist and a lovely man," said the BBC. She recalled that during filming in northwest Ireland, Friel "introduced the people of Donegal to us as if we were all members of his family and community."

Friel often set his dramas in and around the fictional Irish town of Ballybeg, County Donegal, a quasi-rural place that saw its fair share of human joy and sadness. In the early 1980s, he partnered with Rea to establish the Field Day Theatre Company in the city of Derry, Northern Ireland, at a time of great political unrest for the region.

Together, they mounted the first production of "Translations," a drama about linguistic disconnects between English-speaking and Irish characters. The play was widely seen as a dramatic metaphor for the clashes between British forces and independence fighters in Northern Ireland.

The production also starred Neeson, then a relatively unknown actor who performed in a handful of other Friel plays, including "Philadelphia, Here I Come." On Friday, the actor told the BBC that "it was a joy to say his words and to feel secure in the hands of a master craftsman."

Irish President Michael D. Higgins said Friel was "one of the giants of Irish literature, and a great Irishman."

Friel also collaborated with Dublin's Abbey Theatre, whose production of "Lughnasa" ran on Broadway for more than a year. He saw another New York success with a 2006 revival of "Faith Healer," in a production starring Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones and Ian McDiarmid.

He was born in 1929 (Friel, who seldom gave interviews, declined to straighten out differing reports on the exact date) in Northern Ireland. He studied for the priesthood, but gave that up and became a schoolteacher.

In 1963, he was in Minneapolis for the opening of the Guthrie Theater that presented exciting works in a relatively small setting. He said that seeing that lively venue was a factor in him becoming a full-time playwright.

In Southern California, Friel's play "Aristocrats" was performed at the Mark Taper Forum, and "Lughnasa" and "Faith Healer" were done at South Coast Repertory.

He is survived by his wife, Anne Morrison, three daughters and a son.

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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