The Quotidian Theatre Company’s new production of James Joyce’s The Dead, which opened this past weekend, could be the best holiday theater surprise of the season. Quotidian’s production of this 1999 Broadway “play with music” is a welcome change of pace from the usual—and admittedly enjoyable—annual holiday entertainment clichés that flutter into our lives like a soft, gentle snowfall during the waning days of each year.
The current production is based, of course, on Irish writer James Joyce’s famous story “The Dead,” the concluding work in his short story collection Dubliners. Longer than the usual short story, “The Dead” is deceptively simple, seeming at first to be a typical, warm, meandering tale of a family and friends who join together to celebrate the Christmas holidays. Almost Henry Jamesian in its accretion of small details, however, it is in reality a cerebral masterpiece conveniently nestled into its Christmas party frame. Its emotional payoff tiptoes quietly into consciousness like a barely perceptible but inevitable tide.
The very thought of transforming a complicated short story like this into a smallish musical would seem preposterous. And that’s what some critics initially thought when they reviewed the off-Broadway version of James Joyce’s The Dead, with music (and some lyrics) by Richard Nelson and book by Shaun Davey. But the original effort was blessed by the appearance of big-time screen actors Christopher Walken and Blair Brown in the principal roles. With the same stars, some good PR, and some additional shaping and tinkering, the show’s final performing version became a 1999 Broadway holiday hit.
Quotidian’s 2012 version of the show is remarkably successful. The staging, the music, and the acting were all quite authentic (of which more anon). Aside from some early distractions, this production is likely to leave audiences with warm, wistful holiday feelings after the metaphorical curtain falls.
Joyce’s original short story introduces us to a generally jocular gathering whose characters range from rambunctious young people with edgy ideals and politics, through more seasoned middle-agers, to a few of the family’s elders for whom these holidays might very well be their last. Each has his or her story to tell. But the central story that anchors this tale is the lengthy, warm and apparently successful marital relationship of Gabriel and Gretta Conroy.
In transitioning Joyce’s story to a theatrical setting, Nelson and Davey necessarily subordinated the remaining characters to the Conroys, but deftly retained the personalities of each so that the necessary context of the story survived. By adding music to the story—both original compositions and other music based on the traditional Irish but with altered lyrics to suit each scene—the collaborators actually bring to life the generally happy Christmas party that one can only imagine in Joyce’s pages.
The resulting product is a Christmas story that’s not really a Christmas story. Instead, it’s a marvelous relationship study, a theater event that’s tailored to adults, not kids, and its finale packs a quiet but powerful emotional punch as doting husband Gabriel discovers that his lifelong romance with Gretta was not her first experience with love.
Quotidian obviously went to great pains to re-create Joyce’s early 20th century milieu, setting, and characters. The center of the stage recreates, in period authenticity, the parlor/living area of the elderly Morkan sisters, Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate who host the family party each year.
The space is gussied up in gaudy but fading late-Victorian dress, and the main seating piece and other assorted furniture, pictures, and knickknacks, along with period costuming, reinforce the sense of another era. This reviewer’s esteemed spouse, a Dublin native herself, attests to its authenticity, as, surprisingly, such décor remained fashionable even into many 1950s Dublin parlors as she remembers from her early childhood.
As Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, Steve Beall and Janice Hall ably carry the show, but in an admirably understated way. While Gabriel steps away from time to time to narrate the action, thus indicating his relative importance to the plot, Beall’s portrayal is unobtrusive, almost as if he’s embarrassed to serve as the audience’s master-of-ceremonies.
It’s remarkably in keeping with what we imagine to be Gabriel’s essence. As his aunts’ favorite nephew, he’s nominally the family’s paterfamilias. And at times, particularly during his sharp exchanges with feisty young Molly Ivors (portrayed with trouble-making zest by Carolyn Myers), he can be a bit rough and authoritative. But that’s generally not in his generally thoughtful and respectable character, particularly in his interactions with his wife, Gretta, with whom he’s obviously still very deeply in love.
And, as Gretta, Janice Hall seems more than deserving of Gabriel’s devotion. Attractive, talented, and socially gracious, Hall embodies the kind of wife who, even in middle age, has more than enough grace, wisdom, character, and beauty to merit any decent husband’s continuing interest. On the other hand, there’s a fragility to Hall’s Gretta—one that’s not immediately apparent—and it’s the gradual revelation of what’s behind this that gives the entire show its poignancy.
Quotidian’s supporting cast rounds this Christmas party out nicely. As Julia and Kate Morkan, Jane Squier Bruns and Barbara Scheide seem perfectly cast, portraying characters whose occasional dottiness betrays their age but whose nuanced handling of ancient joys and tragedies also gives them a certain pride and dignity. As their niece Mary Jane, Vanessa Kinzey adds to the family warmth, portraying her character as the appointed caretaker of her slowly fading aunties.
Louis Pangaro, David Dubov, Leah Mazade, and Timothy Aaron Ziese are also fine in character roles. A particular hat tip to David Dubov for his portrayal of Freddy Malins, the designated family black sheep who, as usual, has had one too many before the party begins but somehow mostly maintains his decorum anyway.
James Joyce’s The Dead
Closes December 16, 2012
Quotidian Theatre at
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street
2 hours without intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
As an extra-added bonus, the cast members are generally pretty decent singers. Some are better than others, but that’s only natural and comfortable in this play’s family setting, which reflects family realities pretty much everywhere. The songs they sing generally have a real Irish authenticity about them, borrowed as many of them are from real popular tunes.
This production was also blessed by its onstage musicians, capably led by musical director Valerie A. Higgs on the piano. The musicians—hired for the party within the framework of the show—occasionally become characters in the production as well and are well integrated into the concept. An additional hat tip to them all, including Peter Price, Sarah Foard, Tom Zebovitz, and Eric Abalahin.
Our only beef with this production—and it should be fix-able—was that, for roughly the first 15 minutes of the show, the instrumentalists overwhelmed the players making the early, crucial dialogue rather difficult to hear. We’d suggest that the players make every effort to speak louder, as the instrumentalists seemed to be playing as quietly as they could.
James Joyce’s The Dead. Book by Richard Nelson, music by Shaun Davey. Direction and set design: Jack Sbarbori. Featuring Janice Hall as Gretta Conroy and Steve Beall as Gabriel Conroy, with Eric Abalahin, Peter Brice, Felicity Brown, Don Bruns, Jane Squier Bruns, David Dubov, Sarah Foard, Valerie A. Higgs, Mary Beth Luckenbaugh, Vanessa Kinzey, Malinda Markland, Leah Mazade, Carolyn Myers, Lou Pangaro, Barbara Scheide, Tom Zebovitz, and Timothy Aaron Ziese. Music director: Valerie A. Higgs. Lighting Design: Don Slater. Choreographers: Kate Bole, Kara Haslbeck, Catherine Marafino. Costumes: Stephanie Mumford. Sound/lighting tech: Ed Moser. Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company. Reviewed by Terry Ponick.