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Strong acting marks the debut. (Photo courtesy Aris Theatre)

Hoping to fill a void left by the late great Theatre Gael, which for more than a decade staged lovely Irish/Celtic work in the area, the new Arís Theatre has just opened its maiden production, Enda Walsh’s comedy drama The New Electric Ballroom. The company deserves props for tackling something a bit unorthodox and for assembling a cast impressively equipped for the material, but the play itself is a strange, dour one.

Running through June 15 at Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Studio B, Ballroom is a memory play full of remorse and surreal moments. Sisters Clara (Holly Stevenson) and Breda (Kathleen McManus, filling in for the previously announced Patricia French), who’ve advanced past middle age, live in a village off the coast of Ireland. These days the two don’t leave the house. 

Their other sibling Ada (Barbara Cole-Uterhardt), much younger than the other two, does — she works in the local cannery, where the other two sisters were employed before an incident forever scarred their lives. The show takes place around the turn of the century and frequently the elder sisters reflect back on the arrival of a rock ’n’ roll type and the time he broke their hearts back in 1962 at a dance hall. Breda pulls out a cassette player, music begins and the sisters dress up and reenact pivotal moments of that time, virtually daily. Ada seems to enjoy the too-familiar ritual. 

Their mundane lives are interrupted occasionally by Patsy (Steve Hudson), a fishmonger who knocks on the sister’s door, gossips, brings food and wants to come inside, possibly to woo Ada. For the older sisters, he is their only link to the outside world. 

The New Electric Ballroom is not a long show — 80 minutes with no intermission — and has some darkly funny moments and bravura acting, collectively and individually. The performers handle their Irish accents deftly. Stevenson and McManus are well matched with a real sense of sisterly rivalry. They are also wonderful drifting from their spinster-like current selves, roaming around in nightgowns, to the younger versions of themselves.

Stevenson, not seen enough onstage, is ghoulishy effective, almost mad at times, but she never allows her character to be a joke. For her part, McManus never makes her bossy Breda a one-dimensional presence. Optimism marks Uterhardt’s sweet Ada, yet the MVP might be Hudson, whose playfulness and comic timing is a refreshing interruption of the sisterly proceedings. He and Cole-Uterhardt have nice chemistry together, and the actor also gets to show off a surprising singing voice. 

And yet — it never builds up to much. As a play, Walsh’s Ballroom is oddly structured. McManus also directs, and her production is one of quiet, subtle moments, where attention is demanded, and other times just macabre. It can also be a gabfest — some of the monologues and scenes seem endless and unnecessary. Aside from a quartet of wonderful performances, this production just doesn’t have the narrative strength and clarity it could. The secret of what happened and the stamp it placed on the family doesn’t seem worth the wait. 

A company staging Irish theater is absolutely needed in the city, and Arís (pronounced ah-REESH) seems full of talent. Let’s just hope their fall take of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come! can take better advantage of its players. 

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