Staging James Joyce’s moody short story “The Dead” as a holiday musical shouldn’t work. The story, after all, though set at an annual holiday gathering, ends up as one of the most foreboding and darkly poignant pieces in his collection Dubliners. The exploration of Joycean themes—frustrated escapes, Irish nationhood, alienation, the presence of the profound in the everyday—carries throughout. Hanging over it all is the specter of death. Though the past pays a visit to each of the characters, A Christmas Carol this is not. The short story, which delves into the emotional tribulations of the insecure writer Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta, is disquieting, even subversive.
But if there’s anyone who can ensure the requisite tensions shine through within the context of a musical, it is Court Theatre’s artistic director, Charles Newell—the maverick whose direction of Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s seemingly implausible but ingenious staging of Homer’s “Iliad” as a one-man-show won rave reviews last season. This adaptation of Joyce’s story, written by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey, first premiered Off-Broadway in 1999 before ascending to a Broadway stage and critical acclaim the following year. That staging went on to secure, among other plaudits, a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical and a victory in the Best Book category.
In a change-up from Newell’s first two runs at directing “The Dead” at Court a decade ago, the characters now play their own instruments, absent a backing orchestra. This bold change considerably enlivens the play. The gathering at the heart of the story is a dance, after all, and there are impromptu performances and singing throughout, as well as a heated conversation about music during a key dinner table scene. The move lends a rhythm to the story’s tonal shifts: unexpected character entrances and discordances of thought and action are met with halting stops to the diegetic music.
Movement is another key aspect of the production. Turning the small-feeling Ableson Auditorium stage into the venue for an often-boisterous party for a cast of 13 characters is no small feat. Chairs and tables are swept about during numbers in which the cast puts the limited space to good use. During one of these, “Parnell’s Plight,” Gabriel Conroy, the lead character and a reluctant patriot played by Philip Earl Johnson, squares off in song against Molly Ivors, a strident and forthright Irish nationalist played with presence by Lara Filip. The two storm about the stage around the rest of the party with great energy while the music bounds around them—a tempestuous but jovial Irish jig. This rousing energy and spontaneity reappears again and again over the course of the play.
But it’s the softer pieces, “Goldenhair” and “D’Arcy’s Aria,” that carry the play’s emotional weight and feel the most in line with the melancholy and cerebral tone maintained throughout Joyce’s original story. These two pieces act as moments of epiphany, a critical device throughout all the short stories in Dubliners, through which the characters come to startling realizations about themselves and their stations in life.
The cast turns in quality performances. Of particular note are Rob Lindley, who plays the thoroughly soused and shrill Freddie Malins with an earnest fervor, and Mary Ernster, who plays the elderly and ailing Aunt Julia Morkan with a palpable solemnity. Much of the play’s success, though, rests on Johnson’s portrayal of Conroy. Although he is noticeably older than the “young man” Joyce describes in the text, this increase in age actually teases out the theme of intergenerational tension more lucidly than the source material. Moreover, Johnson’s first-person narration, another break from the source material, translates the angst and sense of loss present in the story’s final scene, which sees Gretta make a devastating confession about a figure from her past.
All told, “The Dead” manages to ride the line between reverence for Joyce’s story and the requisite merriment audiences likely expect from a holiday production, lighting upon a spirit that is neither maudlin nor morose. It is a production more warm and inviting than a perusal of death has any right to be.
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through December 9th. (773)753-4472. $15-$65. courttheatre.org