Souls swoon slowly in Court Theatre's James Joyce's "The Dead".
Souls swoon slowly in Court Theatre's James Joyce's "The Dead". Credit: Michael Brosilow

“The Dead”—the final piece in James Joyce’s masterful 1914 short story collection, Dubliners—takes place 12 days after Christmas, on the Feast of the Epiphany. That’s the holy day commemorating the revelation of the Christ child to the Magi—an awfully grand way of describing three guys looking at a baby in a barnyard. But for Joyce the essential banality of the occasion was sort of the point. Though Dubliners is full of epiphanies, it’s precisely the ordinary stuff that triggers them. In “The Dead,” the moment of revelation arrives not with angelic trumpets but with a quiet shift in thought.

Of course, a quiet shift in thought is devilishly difficult to convey onstage. While American playwright Richard Nelson and Irish composer Shaun Davey managed to work a lot of Joyce’s dialogue into James Joyce’s “The Dead,” their 1999 musical adaptation of the story, it’s the perceptions of the protagonist that we miss most.

On the page, Joyce sticks closest to the thoughts of Gabriel Conroy, an exceptionally ill-at-ease literary critic attending the annual holiday party thrown by his elderly aunts and their niece. Sensitive and self-conscious, Gabriel spends the evening blushing, trying to turn a phrase, wishing he were elsewhere, and hating himself. He overreacts to teasing from a female colleague and takes the prospect of having to give an after-dinner speech way too seriously. “A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him,” Joyce writes. “He saw himself as a ludicrous figure . . . a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts.” If you’ve ever felt awkward at a party, I’m sure you can relate.

Hardly any of this discomfort makes it into Philip Earl Johnson’s performance as Gabriel in the current Court Theatre production. He gets grumpy a time or two and exhibits a somber mien. Yet for the most part he’s your average middle-aged everyman. He comes across more as a keen observer of the story than its main character.

In fact, there’s no main character at all in Nelson’s book, which frames “The Dead” as an ensemble-driven affair. The bulk of the show’s 100 minutes is taken up with performances of Davey’s parlor songs, mainly based on traditional Irish poems and ditties. The idea seems to be to let music serve the function that the commonplace serves in Dubliners: a conduit for revelation, transformation, the expression of something essential.

Gabriel’s wife, Gretta (played warmly, with a sense of tender yearning, by Susie McMonagle), is transported to her youth by an old love song. His aunts Julia and Kate become “naughty girls” thanks to a risque music hall number. Childish drunk Freddy Malins (an oddly febrile Rob Lindley) defies time and an angry downstairs neighbor by leading the group in a rowdy, foot-stomping dance to the refrain, “You don’t shush the singer / You let the singer sing / Who cares if we wake the dead?”

Though no stage adaptation can capture the inwardness of prose fiction, the sweetness and vibrancy of these moments do provide a kind of correlative for Joyce’s revelations of everyday evanescence.

Since staging James Joyce’s “The Dead” in 2002 (and again in 2003), director Charles Newell has done some tinkering, most notably doing away with the band. Now music director Doug Peck is stationed onstage, at an upright piano, and cast members provide their own accompaniment on violin, flute, cello, and guitar. This heightens the atmospherics and lends the production an air of authenticity.

The music still presents a problem, though. Davey’s weepy ballads and chest-thumping anthems can’t help but sentimentalize the show in a way that’s inimical to Joyce’s writing. I kept thinking of the passage in Finian’s Rainbow when Finian’s daughter apologizes for making him cry with her performance of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” “Oh, it’s not you,” he replies, wiping his eyes. “It’s that cheap Irish music.”

Nelson’s script also succumbs to drippiness, particularly in its handling of soon-to-die Aunt Julia. At one point she sings a wistful duet with her younger self. At another, a tenor sings her an aria as she smiles beatifically and reaches toward heaven.

At the show’s ostensible climax, Gabriel suddenly grasps the stubborn unknowability of other people and—the scene fading to white with a gently falling snow—catches a glimpse of the endless parade of unknowable ghosts we’ll all eventually join. The holidays can do that to you. “His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead,” Joyce writes. “He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence.” But thanks in part to Nelson’s unfortunate reordering of some scenes and in part to Johnson’s near-catatonic line readings toward the end, that crucial moment hardly registers. Newell’s handsome, buoyant, ultimately unsatisfying staging captures the feast but misses the epiphany.