Actors learn early how to steal focus. All it takes is a little motion.

Give a sweetly determined ingenue a scarf to twirl and the leading lady might as well surrender her big scene in Act 2. Let the third sentry from the right cough or check his watch, and he’ll upstage a star’s soliloquy every time. You can place a principal in the brightest key spot known to lighting designers, and if a bit player in the shadows really wants to be noticed, he need do little more than cross his leg, drink his drink, or develop a nervous tic.

What’s curious is that it also works the other way around, as director Mark A. Rhea is allowing Maura McGinn to demonstrate at the Warehouse Theater. There’s nothing accidental about the little bit of scene-stealing the two have cooked up. They’ve integrated it into the most celebrated sequence in Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel’s memory play about the final summer five Irish sisters spend together before their quietly constrained way of life ends.

It’s the scene in which the author briefly permits these tightly wound women to cut loose. A radio that had been malfunctioning has suddenly come to life, blaring a fiery Irish jig, and one by one, though they resist temptation at first, the Mundy sisters all get caught up in it, twirling, stomping, and whooping up a storm. All except Kate, the family scold who—having just finished vetoing the idea of attending a local dance on the grounds that they’ll all look ridiculous—sits visibly appalled at the spectacle her sisters are making of themselves. Appalled and, as McGinn plays the scene, utterly still. So still that, after just a few seconds, she’s captured your attention as completely as if she’d pulled out a pistol and pointed it at someone in the front row.

The others, meanwhile, are whirling like dervishes, screaming, and leaping onto benches and tabletops. Each sister has a distinctive, free-form approach to revelry, and you could probably intuit a lot about their respective characters by paying attention to their dips and shrieks, but Kate holds your eye. And holds it. So you notice when her foot gives its first hesitant tap in time with the music. And though she barely allows herself a sideways glance, you see each stage as her resolve starts to melt. And then—abruptly—she’s up, too, spinning like the top she’s just brought home for her nephew Michael (David Jourdon), whose memory is conjuring the scene for us.

It’s a nice little moment in a sweetly conceived, modest production that, frankly, could use more of them. Dancing at Lughnasa is an evocatively written but essentially dramaless work. It watches with a child’s appreciation of nuance as the Mundy sisters struggle quietly to warm and nurture family in a life of poverty and rural isolation. They’re not particularly buffeted by their ills; they’re just in a war of attrition, losing ground more rapidly than they suspect.

We know how much ground they’re losing because the grown-up Michael, standing in for himself as a child, keeps popping into scenes to tell us what ultimately happened to everyone. He’s an affectionate but four-square narrator, who tends to talk of desperation to come just before remembering a moment filled with hope and plucky determination. The contrast gives the evening much of its power, but it’s a power that Friel is forever damping down and muting.

So the script benefits from between-the-lines playing, which is what it’s mostly getting in its Keegan Theatre staging at the in-the-midst-of-renovations Warehouse Theater on 7th Street NW. Rhea finds sisterly antagonisms in spots where I never noticed them before. When Michael’s unreliable, out-of-wedlock dad, Jerry (Richard Montgomery), shows up, crowing about his prospects and ruffling Mundy feathers right and left, it’s clear that Michael’s mother, Christina (Kathleen Coons), isn’t the only one who’s ready to nest. So is quiet Aunt Agnes (Sheri S. Herren), who sits in a corner blushing as she knits. (Their fevered interest would make a tad more sense if Montgomery weren’t playing this supposedly sexy cock-o’-the-walk as if he’d just been having tea with the Mad Hatter.)

Jenifer Deal gives no-nonsense Maggie a persuasive chip on her shoulder, and if Melissa Flaim’s interpretation of mentally challenged Rose makes her seem a blander, less dim bulb than usual, well, that’s a legitimate acting choice. Kevin Adams is appealingly fragile as dithery Uncle Jack, a Catholic missionary who “went native” in Africa and now confuses Mass with tribal ceremonies. The troupe, in short, has rounded up a decent company and set them to doing spare, plausible work in a play that demands a bit more than that to be really effective. CP

Keegan Theatre is producing Dancing at Lughnasa in conjunction with Irish Arts 2000, a festival that will have multiple attractions at area venues through Feb. 6. Lughnasa is being performed in repertory with The King of Mackie Street, a new play by Eric Lucas, who starred in Translations, the company’s last Friel production. The Keeganites, who traveled to Ireland this summer with their production of A Streetcar Named Desire, are also importing a comedy from Donegal for the occasion: The Derry Boat, about three generations of emigrants to Scotland.