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For many people at this time of year, all of the seasonal cheer and de rigueur bonhomie can get downright depressing. If you're among this not-so-select group, GableStage may have a holiday show for you: James Joyce's "The Dead," a New Musical Play, which is based on the celebrated short story. The title might suggest some kind of horror or supernatural tale, but actually it's a gentle story that starts with music and laughter and ends in longing and loss. These latter themes could also be applied to the production: While there is much to commend it, the sum of its parts adds up to less than director Joseph Adler's usual superior standard. This Dead, like this season, may leave you feeling a little blue.
The final story in Joyce's collection Dubliners, "The Dead" is a lyrical, poignant tale, considered by many to be among the finest short stories ever written. So it is not surprising that playwright Richard Nelson and composer Shaun Davey would be keen to have a go at a stage adaptation, which began life some years back at Playwrights Horizons in New York, then moved to Broadway starring Christopher Walken and Blair Brown. The play is set at Christmastime in Dublin of 1904 as writer/critic Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Gretta, arrive at an annual dinner held by his elderly aunts, Julia and Kate Morkan. The party is attended by an array of good-natured Irish bourgeoisie, who engage in conversation and sing songs.
Gabriel, troubled by his lack of engagement in his own life, notices that Gretta seems distracted, apparently by a young singer, Michael. Gabriel is plagued by Molly Ivors, an Irish nationalist who accuses Gabriel of being pro-British. An amiable sot, Freddie Malins, arrives with a snootful, to the dismay of his disapproving mother. All the while, Julia seems to be in a weakened state but tries to brave up to her hostess tasks. After the singing and the feasting, Julia takes to her bed and fades quickly. Then the Conroys take to theirs, where Gabriel, jealous and suspicious, learns the secret of his wife's distraction. Singer Michael and his songs remind her of her long-ago youthful swain, Michael Furey, who died after standing below her window in the rain. As snow falls outside, Gabriel reflects on its even-handedness, falling as it does on the living and the dead.
This tale, as Joyce tells it, is far richer than it may appear here. Joyce's life work was to find a way to capture the essence of human experience -- all the raging emotions, fears, and poetry beneath the surface of everyday life. Here, he conjures an amazingly tactile vibrancy to an ordinary holiday celebration and brings forth a bittersweet awareness of the fragility of experience. Joyce's sensibilities seem entirely appropriate to this season, when darkness has its hold on the world and the flickering, fleeting nature of life is all the more apparent amid the customary rituals, which remain constant, even if we don't.
Like all of Joyce's work, The Dead is drawn from autobiographical sources. Like Gabriel, Joyce put in a couple of years as a literary critic and was less than enthusiastic for Irish nationalism. Joyce's common-law wife, Nora, really did know a young Michael who loved and died exactly as in the story. In fact, virtually all of the characters and topical references in the story are drawn from Joyce's life and acquaintances. Joyce combines these elements with dense, carefully constructed classical and literary allusions. There are so many references and hidden meanings in Joyce that an entire academic industry has sprung up to elucidate it.
GableStage certainly has taken a big chance in producing The Dead in its Florida premiere. This is refined, literary material to begin with, hampered by its famous but nevertheless off-putting title. It is the company's first musical, its first "holiday" show, and one that's decidedly counter-programming to the treacly-sweet fare we usually see at this time of year. It is also an expensive, rambling show with a cast of 16, including four on-stage musicians. Nelson and Davey have plucked much of the story line and the dialogue from the story, adding to it 16 traditional songs (using some of Joyce's text as lyrics), as well as incidental music.
In the main, director Adler and his accomplished ensemble fare well. The large cast, anchored by ever-reliable Stephen G. Anthony as the uneasy Gabriel, is very strong. Sandra Ives gives a multidimensional portrait of Gabriel's troubled wife, Gretta. Kay Brady and Kimberly Daniel are poignant as the ailing, tentative Julia Morkan and her anguished sister Kate. Heath Kelts is a fine Freddie; Sheila Allen is convincing as his long-suffering mother. These and the other fine actors help create a naturalistic, tactile sense of place and culture, much as Joyce's story does. This sense of time and place is aided in no small part by the extensive music and song in the show. The entire cast sings, some perhaps with more effect than others. Anthony and Daniel are in fine voice, as are J. Douglas Blevins as Bartell D'Arcy (an opera singer) and John C. Brown as the sole character original to the play but not the story, the angelic singer Michael whose song distracts Gretta so. Rich Simone's detailed, realistic set, a symmetrical array of green curtains and wood-paneled walls, offers a refined, balanced setting to the holiday atmosphere.