Anita Stewart chose the Irish play “Dancing at Lughnasa” to open the Portland Stage Company season because it’s a beautiful play with strong characters.
“They are not perfect, but they are willing to keep moving forward,” the theater’s executive and artistic director said. “That’s what we do with our lives.”
Tony Reilly, who plays the role of the narrator, Michael, relates to idea of moving forward regardless of the circumstances.
Reilly is a South Portland actor who was involved in an auto accident on the Massachusetts Turnpike in December. His wife, Susan, died in the accident, and Reilly lost a leg. As part of his recovery, he has forced himself back on stage despite dealing with enormous grief and learning to live with a prosthetic leg and near-constant pain.
The play opens Friday and runs through Oct. 25.
When Reilly learned that Stewart had chosen this play to open the season, he asked to be involved – for his own benefit and as a way to honor his late wife.
The Reillys co-founded the American Irish Repertory Ensemble and produced “Dancing at Lughnasa” during its first season in Portland. It was one of the couple’s favorite shows.
“I am so happy and proud to be a part of it,” Reilly said. “It’s going to be a really special show. It’s always been an important show to Sue and I.”
Portland Stage is dedicating the play to Susan Reilly.
In addition to Reilly, the cast includes Julie Jesneck, Emma O’Donnell, Keira Keeley, Tod Randolph, Laura Houck, Timothy Adam Venable and Paul Haley. Sally Wood directs.
Written by Brian Friel, “Dancing at Lughnasa” tells the story of five unmarried Irish sisters in County Donegal in the 1930s. The play is the stories of their lives, which are full of sadness and struggle, but also love, light and hope. The play is set in the family home where they live and is told through Michael’s memories.
Stewart saw the show on Broadway and has wanted to do it since. The tragedy that befell the Reillys provided the impetus to do it now, she said. She wanted to honor Susan Reilly, and producing one of the late actress’s favorite shows felt appropriate. “It makes it emotionally harder and also more important that we get it right,” she said.
After they produced “Dancing with Lughnasa” for AIRE, the Reillys took a trip to Capri, Italy, where Tony Reilly bought a music box for Susan that played the song “The Isle of Capri.” The character Maggie – whom Susan played in the AIRE production – sings the song in the play.
The music box has been sitting on Susan’s dressing table at home for 12 years.
Reilly brought it to rehearsal a few weeks ago and told his story to the cast. Wood was so moved, she’s including the music box in the play. “It’s a way of saying that Susan is still here,” Wood said.
As a director, Wood has long admired Reilly’s work on stage. As a friend, she admires his courage and strength.
“Tony is this beautiful sea of energy,” she said. “He is funny at rehearsals. He is cracking jokes about his leg and things like that. It’s also very emotional. The other day, we were going over a monologue, and he bursts into tears. He said, ‘Today is our anniversary.’ The whole room erupts into tears. He said, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine. I’m just glad to be here.’
“There’s just this really big emotional energy coming from Tony in ways that are healthy for the show, healthy for me and healthy for him.”
WHERE: Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland
WHEN: Final preview at 7:30 p.m. Thursday; opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and continues through Oct. 25 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; and 2 p.m. Oct. 22.
TICKETS & INFO: $20 to $47; 207-774-0465 or portlandstage.org