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© Carol Rosegg
© Carol Rosegg
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Theater: Have Yourself a Joycean Little Christmas With "The Dead, 1904"

Picture of Carey Purcell
Updated: 6 December 2017
A New York stage adaptation of James Joyce’s novella inspires joyful and wistful feelings.

No matter how much effort one puts into creating holiday cheer, the end of the year always manages to be a little bittersweet and melancholy. If one reflects on the past 12 months, regrets inevitably arise. If one looks toward the future, fears about unresolved hopes emerge. The Dead, 1904, the immersive theatrical adaptation of James Joyce’s seasonal novella, beautifully illustrates these contradicting emotions–even if they are at times difficult to see.

Festively old-fashioned

One of Joyce’s best known works, The Dead, which chronicles a gathering of friends for a holiday party, previously inspired John Huston’s 1987 film and a subsequent Broadway musical. Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s adaptation, presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre and Dot Dot Productions, is being staged at the American Historical Society, where it engages the audience of approximately 40 in a festively old-fashioned celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. The hosts are gracious elderly Dubliners, Julia and Kate Morkan, played by Patti Perkins and Patricia Kilgarriff respectively.

Melissa Gilbert and Rufus Collins in Irish Rep's THE DEAD, 1904.Photo by Carol Rosegg (5)
Melissa Gilbert and Rufus Collins as Gretta and Gabriel Conroy in The Dead, 1904 | © Carol Rosegg

After assembling in the Society’s lobby, guests are escorted upstairs by the maid, Lily, played by the amusing Clare O’Malley. Holly is draped over the parlor’s mantles and mistletoe hangs from the chandeliers. Sherry, whiskey, stout, and punch are served in delicate glasses. The guests can mingle with each other and the cast or sit and enjoy the musical performances by the hosts’ niece Mary Jane, played by Kimberly Doreen Burns, while the older women bustle from room to room. Leon Dobkowski designed the elegant costumes.

Boisterous drunk

Ciarán O’Reilly’s direction establishes the characters’ relationships as the evening proceeds. Along with the violinist Miss Daly (Megan Loomis); the Irish nationalist Molly Ivors (Aedín Moloney); Bartell D’Arcy (John Treacy Egan), the tenor who for most of the play refuses to perform; and the Protestant Mr. Browne (Peter Cormican), Joyce’s characters include the boisterous drunk Freddy Malins (James Russell) and his fretful mother (Terry Donnelly).

The aunts’ favorite nephew Gabriel and his wife Gretta, subtly played by Rufus Collins and Melissa Gilbert, are anxiously awaited. Upon arriving, Gabriel immediately finds himself entangled in a mid-dance argument with Molly, who disapproves his writing for what she calls an “anti-Irish” paper and accuses him of being disloyal to his country. Gabriel is visibly unsettled by the exchange, but his reaction might easily be missed if one is standing in the wrong place in the parlor, or if the other actors, choreographed by Barry McNabb, block the view.

James Russell and Peter Cormican in Irish Rep's THE DEAD, 1904.Photo by Carol Rosegg
James Russell as Freddy Malins and Peter Cormican as Mr. Browne in The Dead, 1904 | © Carol Rosegg

The guests are then seated for a meal, catered by Great Performances. Turkey, beef, green beans, and mashed potatoes are served to guests seated on the room’s perimeter, along with generous pours of wine. A few guests are placed at the center table with the cast, where the performances continue. One should make an effort to sit as close to this area as possible in order to hear the intimate conversations.

As the meal concludes, Gabriel gives a gallant speech of gratitude, reflecting on the importance of Irish hospitality and his fears that the future generation will not proffer the same munificence. Well-received and warmly appreciated, the speech includes all the right words but seems emotionally uninspired.

Loved her so deeply

While undeniably enjoyable, the party is lacking in any obvious substantial conflict and those not familiar with Joyce‘s story might wonder one what is driving the play’s narrative. The answer lies in Gabriel’s inner monologue, which we witness at the evening’s conclusion. Following a moving performance of “The Lass of Aughrim”, sung by D’Arcy, Gabriel and Gretta find themselves preparing for bed in the aunts’ guest room, to which the guests are invited with an amusingly subtle nod from Lily.

Gabriel attempts to embrace his wife, but she ignores him. D’Arcy’s singing had recalled a painful incident from Gretta’s youth, inspiring memories of her childhood sweetheart, Michael Furey. He had loved her so deeply he had braved a freezing night to serenade her with the same song sung by D’Arcy. Michael had subsequently died from exposure at 17.

Melissa Gilbert in Irish Rep's THE DEAD, 1904.Photo by Carol Rosegg
Melissa Gilbert as Gretta Conroy in The Dead, 1904 | © Carol Rosegg

Witnessing the previously poised and dignified Gretta collapse into devastated sobs is alarming, but Gabriel’s response, after covering her with a blanket, is more detached and bewildered than empathetic or sorrowful. The two had shared an easy rapport throughout the evening, establishing themselves as an affectionate, long-time couple, an image this poignant scene undercuts.

The falling snow

After Greta has sobbed herself to sleep, Gabriel stands alone in the dark, reflecting on the love Gretta experienced as a young woman and the absence of those emotions in his own life. As he broods upon the inevitability of death, Gabriel acknowledges that he has never known anything equal to such passion, saying, “I have never felt like that myself towards any woman but I know that such a feeling must be love.”

Standing in the darkened room, framed by a window that reveals falling snow, he speaks the words with more bitterness than grief. He appears more disturbed by that fact that his wife had never previously told him about Michael Furey than by the realization that she loved someone before, and perhaps more than she loves him.

Rufus Collins in Irish Rep's THE DEAD, 1904.Photo by Carol Rosegg
Rufus Collins as Gabriel Conroy in The Dead, 1904 | © Carol Rosegg

Collins delivers the speech capably, but the scene, which should be cathartic, is too rehearsed and lacking in emotion, despite the beauty of the words: “My soul swoons slowly as I hear the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

This lengthy and somber climax contrasts starkly with the cheery festivities we had enjoyed just one floor below earlier in the play. Despite its flaws, it offers the most realistic—and yet beautiful—evocation of the holiday spirit, making each spectator taking stock of her or his life in the present and wonder what might have been.

The Dead, 1904 runs through January 7, 2018 at the Irish Historical Society, 991 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028. Tickets can be purchased here.