James Joyce’s The Dead

Court Theatre

Young writers reach their greatest eloquence in dwelling upon the horrors of middle age and what follows it.

–Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

It is true, it is true, we are shadows cold and wan / And the fair and the brave whom we loved on earth are gone.

–Thomas Moore, “O, Ye Dead!”

Christmastime is a season of traditions, rituals we play out year after year. Sending cards and giving gifts, hanging holly and decorating trees, drinking eggnog and baking cookies, watching stage and TV performances of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol, singing along with Handel’s Messiah and suffering through “The Little Drummer Boy.” One friend of mine has been putting a portrait of her awesomely dysfunctional family on her Christmas card for the past 30 years. These stiffly posed photos document how her offspring have grown from innocent-looking children to graying grown-ups with babies of their own–and record the comings and goings of various spouses, including hers.

Sometimes these traditions become ends unto themselves–things we do because we’re expected to, not because we want to. But ideally familiar shared activities help us to know ourselves; to measure what we’ve gained, preserved, and lost; to reflect, renew, and regret.

James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” depicts how a routine holiday tradition can explode with wonderful and terrible new meaning. Written in 1907 and published in Joyce’s landmark 1914 collection Dubliners, “The Dead” has now been adapted for the stage. Titled James Joyce’s The Dead–presumably so audiences will know it’s not a George Romero movie–it premiered in New York in 1999 and is now enjoying its Chicago premiere at Court Theatre.

Set in early-20th-century Dublin, James Joyce’s The Dead takes place at a holiday musicale, an evening of food and song celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany–during which the Joyce-like protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, experiences his own epiphany. Gabriel is the nephew of two of the annual party’s hosts, elderly sisters Julia and Kate Morkan; a teacher and sometime book reviewer, he’s been assigned the task of delivering the after-dinner speech, a tribute to Irish hospitality. Yet Gabriel is far from secure in his Irish identity, feeling little connection to the primitive Irish legacy embodied in his Galway-bred wife, Gretta. Mocked as a “West Briton” by fiery nationalist Molly Ivors, another guest, Gabriel has long adopted an attitude of genial condescension toward all things Irish, including his wife.

Music is at the center of the show, as it is of Joyce’s story (whose title is inspired by the Irish song “O, Ye Dead!”). In fact Gabriel dubs Julia, Kate, and their music-teacher niece, Mary Jane, “the Three Graces of the Dublin music world.” (The pre-Christian allusion suggests the antipathy that Gabriel, like Joyce, feels toward the Catholic church.) Everyone is expected to sing, and the evening’s ebb and flow is dictated by their songs and dances. Julia–unwillingly “retired” from the local church choir because of a new papal policy replacing women choristers with boy sopranos–displays a quavery but still beautiful soprano, then reveals a feisty, girlish side as she kicks up her heels in a “naughty” music-hall turn. Molly leads the group in a patriotic paean–whose rousing rhythms Gabriel tries unsuccessfully to resist. Freddy Malins, a dandified young drunkard, sings to win his stern mother’s approval but only shames her more. Handsome, shy Michael, one of Mary Jane’s students, blossoms in a rousing sing-along. And Gretta rekindles Gabriel’s long-dormant passion with a love ballad she secretly sings for her first suitor–a 17-year-old boy she believes died for love of her. Eventually the whole party erupts in a fiery step dance, defying the petulant tapping of a downstairs neighbor. “You don’t shush the singer, you let the singer sing!” they wail. “Who cares if we wake the dead?” Their rousing, exquisite harmonies are impeccably guided by musical director Jeff Lewis, who also leads a small band of fiddle, guitar, flute, cello, Irish drum, and harmonium.

James Joyce’s The Dead is clearly a labor of love for playwright Richard Nelson and composer Shaun Davey, who collaborated on the lyrics, as well as for this production’s splendid cast and creative team. Court’s intimate auditorium allows us to share in the event, as if we were at a party rather than a show. Yet this party peaks with the death of Julia and concludes with Gabriel’s stunned realization of his own isolation. Like many holiday parties, this one bursts with excitement but ends in tears. And the final number, led by Gabriel and sung by the whole company, echoes Joyce’s famous description of snow “faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Davey’s melody for this tune is grand and anthemic, but the Joycean message is inescapably somber.

The show is not wholly successful even on its own downbeat terms. The music tends to sentimentalize Joyce’s theme of spiritual emptiness, turning it into a maudlin meditation on marital angst. And director Charles Newell’s decision to discourage applause during the one-act performance–the music flows seamlessly in and out of the dialogue rather than pausing at the end of each tune–will frustrate some viewers’ need to release the energy the songs engender in them.

But in Newell’s staging James Joyce’s The Dead is filled with haunting moments and powerful performances, and it’s simply yet beautifully designed by Brian Bembridge (set), Joel Moritz (lights), and Linda Roethke (costumes). Some episodes are as unforgettable as anything I’ve seen in nearly 40 years of Chicago theatergoing. Julia–played by Deanna Dunagan with a stunning mixture of fragility and indomitability–is serenaded on her deathbed by an a cappella male quintet, then embraces and harmonizes with her younger self (Cristen Paige). John Reeger as Gabriel, pinpointed in light while shadows loom around him, wrestles with the “vague terror” that Joyce describes in response to Gretta’s revelation of her early love. And Paula Scrofano as Gretta reconnects through song with feelings for a long-dead lover, her plaintive voice registering a breaking heart. Indeed, the musical is a remarkable showcase for some of the off-Loop movement’s finest singing actors–also including Hollis Resnik as Molly, Kathy Taylor as Kate, and McKinley Carter as Mary Jane–onetime Young Turks moving gracefully, inexorably into middle age.

James Joyce’s The Dead is billed as a “holiday musical,” but viewers anticipating another Oliver! or Lion King may be disappointed. Holiday musicals are usually feel-good family shows, and this is a somber, thoughtful literary piece for discriminating, mature tastes. I don’t know if it will become a new Christmas tradition, but at least it brings a welcome depth to the season.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.