The acting in Deirdre Kinahan’s “Moment” at Studio Theatre is so sharp it’s like seeing a play in a live equivalent of high-def. The drama revolves around a criminal incident that blew a family apart years ago; “Moment” captures a brief encounter as they fleetingly reunite in their mother’s suburban kitchen.
The secret that the audience slowly learns is well-known to all of the characters, and it involves Nial, the prodigal brother who’s now an acclaimed painter and is just passing through. Nial’s reemergence practically knocks his sister Niamh sideways, although it takes her a while to say exactly why.
Withholding the family history from the audience is only moderately successful at generating suspense; it’s no spoiler to say that Nial did something dreadful and Niamh hasn’t forgiven him. Kinahan’s strength here isn’t originality of plot, nor is it a play’s striking insight about how a traumatized family communicates (or fails to, despite the episodes of lashing out and the calmer moments of quiet advice).
Yet Kinahan writes with such exactitude about her characters that “Moment” is an effectively watchable, playable play. Director Ethan McSweeny, better known in Washington for his bigger shows with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, handles “Moment” with a delicate touch in Studio’s coziest venue, the Milton Theatre. The result is acting that never hits a wrong note and is as absorbingly detailed as designer Debra Booth’s humble and functional-looking kitchen set.
The evening’s heat comes from Emily Landham’s resentment as Niamh, who works in a local publishing house and enters with a hopeful beau named Fin trailing her (a wonky and solicitous Avery Clark). Landham never overplays the character’s tension, even when Niamh rebuffs not only Peter Albrink’s brooding Nial, but also his unexpected new English wife, Ruth.
As Ruth, Hannah Yelland is superb as the outsider trying to charm her way in, and she and Albrink — who creates a nuanced portrait of a damaged man trying to move on — have a lovely fragile rapport. Caroline Bootle Pendergast and Ciaran Byrne supply spirited turns as the good-time couple Ciara (sister of Niamh and Nial) and her husband, the simple-spirited Dave. The bustle and banter around the family table couldn’t have a more everyday texture as Kinahan’s dialogue begins to overlap, as tea and wine are poured, and as frictions finally catch fire.
The most profound instance of vanishing inside a character is Dearbhla Molloy’s utterly natural performance as Teresa, the addled matriarch of the clan. Molloy’s credentials are impressive — Tony nomination for “Dancing at Lughnasa,” associate artist at Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre, a member of the excellent Druid ensemble that brought Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” to the Kennedy Center a few years ago. There is nothing flashy about Teresa, yet Molloy is subtly, authoritatively gripping. The believability is absolute as this long-suffering mother waves away attention yet fusses to keep her almost disintegrated family together just for an afternoon.
Intriguingly in this season of women’s playwriting voices, Kinahan is the first female Irish dramatist that Studio has produced, and next month, Kinahan’s new “Wild Sky” will be staged by Solas Nua in private residences downtown. Kinahan seems to be a keen observer, and the actors certainly make the most of “Moment’s” slow, steady fuse.
Moment by Deirdre Kinahan. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Set design, Debra Booth; costumes, Philip Witcomb; lights, Scott Bolman; sound design, Palmer Hefferan. With Mira Cohen. About two hours. Tickets: $54-$91. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.