Richard Ellman, a biographer of James Joyce, once wrote of the enigmatic Irishman, “He does not wish to conquer us, but have us conquer him. There are, in other words, no invitations, but the door is ajar.” Indeed, upon taking a seat for Boston’s Huntington Theatre’s production of James Joyce’s The Dead, one feels as though one has just stepped through an open door into a world where entire families really do assemble for the holidays, really do sing and really do celebrate the dead rather than mourn them.
James Joyce’s The Dead is a musical that revolves not around plot, but delicate story telling; very little happens, but everything that does happen is thoroughly engaging.
Every Christmas, the “three graces of Dublin,” the elderly sisters Julia and Kate Morkan, along with their niece Jane, hold a traditional party. At the party that the audience attends are a host of assembled characters somehow familiar but whom only Joyce could have written with any spark: a taciturn opera singer, an oddly cantankerous young girl, a merry drunkard and his mother (who manages to make Herod’s wife look like Mrs. Brady). All of these characters are auxiliary to Joyce’s self-referential creation, Gabriel (played with remarkable agility and discretion by Sean Cullen).
If there is a main element to the plot, it is that Aunt Julia is nearing death. The skillful adaptation of Joyce’s text by writer-director Richard Nelson indicates that reality, but does not go for mere empathy, instead communicating a hope that transcends death. At the same time that Julia’s health is failing, Gabriel is doubting the love borne for him by his wife, played by a lovely but somewhat grating Kate Kearney-Patch, who possesses a radiant voice but whose speaking voice requires more reining-in than was given by the director.
The audience is surprised to learn Gabriel’s suspicions might be justified by his wife’s surprisingly intimate relationship with a young music student (a quiet Jesse Pennington); the bond, however, turns out to be something far deeper than lust and stronger even than true love.
Nelson holds the production together with strong direction that is delightfully self-aware. Many of the songs are delivered by characters fully aware that they are singing, rather than communicating with words that the audience somehow hears put to music. Just before the format of musical storytelling (apparently a tradition at the Morkan residence) becomes tedious, the format is halted, and more book-based story-telling resumes.
Gradually, the slight plot resolves with fine acting; the tension between drunken son and remote mother dissipates; feelings of ill will fade between Gabriel and the attractive Molly Ivors (the aforementioned cantankerous youth, played with a surprisingly beautiful conscientiousness by Brandy Zarle); and Bartell D’Arcy, supposedly the best baritone of his time (a role more than sufficiently fulfilled by Gannon McHale), settles his affairs with his almost reluctant hostess, Aunt Julia herself.
The music in this show is not indicative of a typical Broadway tuner; it is not there for the sake of indulging in production numbers or dazzling tourists, but instead exists for the sake of aural aesthetics.
Delightful and, at times, very complex choreography enhances the sense of delight, and, for a moment, the troubles of a nation, the blistering humidity outside and the mundane details of everyday life are turned over to an organically-created and genuinely-felt celebration of Christmas, music and family.
In the end, the living join with the dead, snow falls in the background and a feeling of serenity, a serenity, one might think, as comforting as that which accompanies the dead, passes over the audience. As the always-apropos Gabriel himself poses, “Where are the words that might express one’s heart?” The pseudo-answer to this rhetorical question lies in the play’s unconscious description of the audience: “They listened, they watched, and they smiled.”
Indeed they did.
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