Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

ACT brings James Joyce's The Dead
to San Francisco

Also see Richard's review of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

James Joyce's The Dead opened at ACT's Geary Theatre on Tuesday and the is as charming as the New York production. This is a co-production of the Huntington Theatre Company of Boston and brings the same cast. Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey's musical adaptation is based on the brilliant final tale in Dubliners, Joyce's celebrated collection of short stories. It won the 2000 Tony Award for best book of a musical and the musical features original melodies inspired by the folk music of Ireland with lyrics adapted from Irish poetry by Joyce himself.

The story takes place on a snowy Christmas evening in Dublin in 1906 where Gabriel Markan's two spinster aunts are throwing their annual Yuletide party in their parlor, where for years generations of friends and relatives have gathered to share stories and sing songs. This Christmas, one of those songs awakens in Gabriel's wife the memory of a love lost long ago and revives a deeply buried passion.

I love the play since it brings back fond memories of my Irish upbringing. I had two spinster aunts who sort of raised me and they gave an annual Christmas dinner for friends and relations. I even had an uncle exactly like Freddy Malins who imbibed a little too much of liquid glee. He also possessed the same laugh as Freddy.

I noticed that there is a slight difference between the New York production and this production. This offering is less melodramatic then the original; even the deathbed scene seems less dramatic. I found I was closer to the characters in this rendition, maybe because most of these performers' portrayals seem more true to the spirit of Joyce's work.

The play is seen through Gabriel's poetic mind and he talks directly to the audience on occasion. The songs work brilliantly within the dialogue. The playwright has the characters alternate between enchanting vocalizations and some calumnious looks that say all is not what it seems.

There are some wonderful moments in the hour and 50 minute play. The highlight of James Joyce's The Dead is the mischievous aged aunts' vamping on "Naughty Girls" as they stare flirtatiously at the menfolk and kick up their heels. They are joined in a wonderful line dance across the stage and around the furniture by all members of the cast.

Another great moment is the rousing "Wake the Dead" number in which the singers dance and sing with great abandon. There is a collective insubordination about that scene. Once again the actors sing with their backs to the audience, singing to the guests of the party. It was difficult at times to hear the lyrics of many of the songs, particularly the invigorating "Parnell's Plight," sung very well by Jesse Pennington as Michael, a music student from Kilarney. The cast also joins in the exhilarating song. Also, there is some difficulty hearing some of the dialogue, particularly the words of those sitting in the back under the eves of the balcony. The cast does not appear to be miked.

I think Sean Cullen as Gabriel is superb. He gives the character a humanizing touch as a man who is confused, charitable, pretentious and good hearted all at the same time. His last scene is very touching. It is a more natural performance then that of Christopher Walken on Broadway.

Gabriel's wife, Greta, played by Kate Kearney-Patch, whose memory of the her dead lover inspires the story's ending image, is properly mournful. I thought Blair Brown was more dramatic in the role in New York, but Ms. Patch radiates tenderness in her duet "Adieu to Ballyshannon".

Paul Anthony McGrane plays the good natured drunk, Freddy, and he is not as showy as Stephen Spinella in New York. Mr. McGrane blends in more with the cast than Stephen did. However, at the dinner table when the men are talking about great singers of the past and Freddy starts to talk about the singers at the Gaiety, it brought back memories of my tipsy uncle. A great scene.

Freddy's mother is Paddy Croft, who performed the role on Broadway, and she is marvelous in the role. It is a pleasure to see her again and she has one of the most striking theater faces in my memory. Every time I see her, I am reminded of Marita Hunt in Madwoman of Chaillot.

The two maiden aunts are well played by Alice Cannon and Patricia Kilgarriff. Each plays so well against the other that I again thought of my maiden aunts. The rest of the cast is wonderful. The wonderful scene near the end when Aunt Julia, on her deathbed, is being serenaded by the menfolk as a barbershop quartet is priceless. The "Queen of Hearts" number is captivating.

This is a thoroughly bewitching production and it makes my Irish heart happy to see the production again. James Joyce's The Dead plays through November 25 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$66. Call (415)749-2228 or visit

The perennial Yuletide favorite A Christmas Carol opens again on December 8, and runs through December 29.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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