Wonderful Tennessee, Touchstone Theatre.

Like his Irish literary fore-father Sean O’Casey, Brian Friel heightens ordinary speech into poetry; his dialogue dances from the characters’ mouths. In Wonderful Tennessee, his wrongly dismissed play of 1993, Friel captures the lyrical, mystical qualities of the Irish voice and breaks new ground on the culture’s contradictions: its pagan and Christian traditions, rationality and emotion, myth and history, ritual and individual choice.

Three middle-aged couples about to visit an uninhabited island find different meanings in their pilgrimage: for some it’s a chance to reconnect to childhood memories, for others a way to escape the misery of domestic life, and for those facing illness a magical journey that might restore them to health. Passing the night on a pier awaiting the ferry, these archetypal characters pursue Friel’s central, compelling question: how do we get to a place that seems beyond our reach, and what’s there that we so desperately desire?

Beautifully directed by J.R. Sullivan, this production sustains the tension between the characters’ displays of happiness (they enter singing as many “happy” songs as they can remember) and inner longings. Sullivan’s fluid staging gives us the chance to see through each character’s eyes, and he brings out the flesh-and-blood traits in Friel’s creations: a less competent director might have reduced the archetypes to stereotypes. The characters’ storytelling emphasizes the necessity of communal, tribal sharing of pain. Berna, the most blatantly disturbed, lets us into her irrational world through her passionate tale of a flying house. And embittered, intellectual Frank describes a dolphin he saw dancing on the water, its maniacal movement too human, too driven. The audience witnesses a similar ritual: a performance driven by irony, beauty, and pain.