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'Lovers: Winners and Losers' is timeless drama

Ashland Contemporary Theatre is offering a double dose of drama that explores both youthful and mature love against the backdrop of deeply religious and repressive Northern Ireland in the 1960s.

“Lovers: Winners and Losers”  — a pair of one-act plays by Irish playwright Brian Friel — is directed by Susan Aversa-Orrego and features a cast of eight.

“Brian Friel was a master playwright, and part of his magic is that he can subtly say a lot about society and people,” says Jeannine Grizzard, ACT artistic director. “His work still speaks to us today.”

Aversa-Orrego says she wanted to direct this play for ACT because Friel is such a gifted writer.

“This play is a beautiful piece of work,” Aversa-Orrego says. “People are going to walk away with so much to think about concerning our relationships and how we treat each other both individually and as a society.”

Performances are set for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 6-7; 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15; 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 29, at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at Paddington Station in Ashland, Grocery Outlet in Medford, online at ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org or by calling 541-646-2971.

Considered by many to be the greatest English language dramatist of the post WW II era, Friel wrote more than 30 plays in his 60-year career, including "Dancing at Lughnasa," "Faith Healer" and "Philadelphia, Here I Come!"

He died at the age of 84 while ACT's theater troupe was in rehearsals.

“It was so strange to hear of his death,” Aversa-Orrego says. “I think it made all of us want to honor his work even more.”

Friel's pair of one-act plays are set in the fictional Northern Ireland town of Ballymore. In "Winners," Mag and Joe are high school seniors, about to be wed in three weeks because Mag is pregnant. The two meet to study on top of a hill and all of their hopes and fears are exposed. The "Winners" cast features Alyssa Marie Matthews as Mag and Jake Raiter as Joe. Ann Haynes and David Rowley are the narrators who shape the story of the two young people.

Grizzard points out that — given the intimacy of the space — the audience will feel the poignancy of the first play, and the second play will get more laughs.

“There are some humorous moments, and the two leads have such cuteness and chemistry together,” Grizzard says.

In "Losers," older couple Andy and Hanna try to court in the living room while Hanna's invalid mother constantly interrupts with demands for their attention. Becky Durango and Robert Brazeau are the lovers. Cynthia Tank is the demanding mother, and Nina Newton is the prayerful next-door neighbor, Cissy.

Aversa-Orrego says people often ask why the older couple are the losers in these two plays.

“I think it’s because the young characters are beautiful and in love and don’t have the regret and bitterness that comes with age,” Aversa-Orrego says. “The older couple have a harder time overcoming the strict social and religious rules in their world.”

While the culture in 1960s Northern Ireland was different from today, Grizzard says, the plays manage to bridge the span of time, highlighting aspects of our current political and social environment.

“The distance between the U.S. now and Ireland in 1966 are irrelevant in this story,” she says. “The audience will see how a lot of things haven’t changed over time. This play feels very current, fresh as a loaf of Irish bread.”

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com

Jake Raiter and Alyssa Marie Mathews play young lovers in ACT's production of Brian Friel's 'Lovers: Winners and Losers,' showing through Nov. 29. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch