Jack Neary's "First Night," a charming romantic comedy, was the first new play ever staged at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell. That happened way back in 1987, when the late Dan Schay was the producing artistic director and the theater had recently moved downtown to Liberty Hall from its first home in Mahoney Hall on UMass Lowell's South Campus.
Neary, a Lowell native, brings "First Night" back to the MRT stage next weekend for three performances on Friday and Saturday, July 19-20, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, July 21, at 3 p.m.
It stars the same acclaimed cast — John Manning and Jocelyn Duford — that he directed earlier this year for Acting Out Productions in Newburyport and later at Beverly's Larcom Theatre.
"First Night" is about old loves and second chances as Danny, a video-store clerk in his 30s, and Meredith, a girl he liked in grammar school who went away to become a nun, reconnect on a New Year's Eve.
"The play holds up after all this time," Neary said. "The cast is so good and really delve into these characters."
Manning, who plays Danny, is a Westford native with extensive regional and New York acting credits, who also works a "day job" during the school year tutoring at Lowell's Butler Middle School.
Doing "First Night" at the MRT is a homecoming for him as much as it is for Neary and the play, he said.
"I was a shy kid, and my parents enrolled me in MRT's summer theater program. It was my first time exposed to theater, and it changed my life. I've pursued acting ever since," Manning said.
He has done many plays and musicals, from "Charlotte's Web" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to "Fiddler on the Roof," "Anything Goes" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." But "First Night" has been his best acting experience.
"Audience response is incredible," he said. "We hear roars of laughter and audible gasps and cheers as the play twists and turns. I've never heard such responses before."
Duford, a Goffstown, N.H., native with extensive theater and teaching credits, is enthralled with "First Night" and having Neary, the playwright, also direct her.
"It's a unique experience for me," she said. "I always put everything I've got into a production, but knowing these words are Jack's ups the stakes and makes me dig deeper into the dialogue."
Neary and his cast look forward to sharing "First Night" again at the MRT.
"It's worth seeing more than once," Duford said.
"It's incredibly funny and full of heart," Manning added.
And the last word on "First Night" from Neary himself: "It's exciting to bring it back to the MRT 32 years later with this incredibly talented cast."
Tickets are $35, orchestra; $30, balcony; with senior and group discounts. Call 978-654-4678 or visit www.mrt.org.
Nancye Tuttle's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.