Reviewed: James Joyce’s “The Dead” breathes new life on the University Stage
Words by Patrick Dunham, Photos by Phillip Quinn
“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.” —James Joyce, “The Dead”
In Michael Malek Najjar’s direction of James Joyce’s The Dead (adapted by Richard Nelson and Shawn Davey), we spend an evening filled with song and dance at Misses Morkans’ annual Epiphany Feast. It is 1913. The last hurrah before the First World War and the next phase of fighting for Irish nationalism would rear their ugly heads, but everyone is in jolly spirits. The guests are a baker’s dozen of dear friends gathered for a celebration of holiday cheer, bestowed with hearty amounts of stout, pudding, and Irish jigs. Gabriel (Alex Mentzel) and his wife Mrs. Conroy (Kelsey Tidball) show up late, buffeted by the snow but glad to arrive in a warm home with all their cohort mulling about.
The staging is simple but excellent, using the play’s four settings with great depth of field. Guests chatter and exchange their peas and carrots with realistic banter that renders every scene with dynamism. Out of the sizeable cast of 14, each player is given proper characterization and quirk that feels authentic and thorough. For the Irish accents alone, it is worth the price of admission (which, for every University Theater production, is free for students). Mr. Browne (Jackson Perkins) in particular was a standout for his bemusedly drunken repartee and range of expression.
Occasionally the lights fade from warm, spirited hues of orange to pensive rays of cobalt: guests freeze in place, and Gabriel launches into an aside. These digressions give context not only to the individuals surrounding him, but how this year’s party stands out from the rest in a previously unheard song shared by his wife. Out of this mysterious tune The Dead’s main conflict seeps, delving the narrative into poignant ruminations on lost love, the finiteness of knowing our beloved, and the dead whom ceaselessly integrate into our cumulative being as we live on.
Like Peter and the Starcatcher and End of the Rainbow, The Dead isn’t so much a musical as a hybrid form. It has many songs, but also ample dialogue. Every song and dance is delicately woven into the merry gathering. Gabriel’s voice and range in particular is sweepingly beautiful.
The conversion from the 39 pages of the original short story (being the last and longest chapter of Dubliners) deftly retains the spirit of Irish pride and captures what middle-class modern life was like for Dubliners. By the melancholy but righteous conclusion, both Gabriel and the audience come to realize that the world is indeed like a frozen lake: just as we never quite know what lies beneath the land we walk on, our inhabited psyches are just as mysteriously boundless.
In the words of director Michael Malek Najjar, “So many of our days, our interactions, and our goings on are spent carefully walking across the surface of this frozen lake called life. We rarely stop to think about the enormous wellspring of emotions we all have within us until a crack appears; then there is no denying that we have so much reckoning to accomplish before we finally depart this world…while we are alive, we must live.”