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Boston by Suzanne Bixby


James Joyce's The Dead

"The world I've come to think, is like the surface of a frozen lake. We walk along, we slip, we try to keep our balance and not to fall. One day, there's a crack, and so we learn that underneath us - is an unimaginable depth."

Richard Nelson, James Joyce's The Dead

These words are spoken in both the opening and closing narration of Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey's musical adaptation of the Joyce short story. The events of last week give new meaning to the word "unimaginable." The opening night's performance at Boston's Huntington Theatre was dedicated to the victims of the previous day's terrible tragedy and their families and friends.

Produced in association with the American Conservatory Theater, James Joyce's The Dead will be in Boston through October 14th before traveling to San Francisco for an October 25 - November 25 engagement. With the creative and design teams intact, this production is, essentially, a continuation of the original 1999/2000 Broadway one which also briefly toured to Los Angeles and The Kennedy Center, where I first saw it a year ago.

Set in Dublin a century ago, three generations of family and friends come together for the Misses Morkans' annual Christmas-time party. Given the musical proclivities of the hostesses and the style of home entertaining popular at the time, an evening of music and dance is inevitable. We enter this world through the eyes of their nephew Gabriel, whom Nelson wisely uses as a narrator to imbue his script with generous helpings of Joyce's prose.

Nelson again directs his own work, thus ensuring that the unconventional approach to the staging remains intact. Ably assisted by choreographer Sean Curran, who has Irish and Boston family roots, and Irish composer Davey, the musical numbers evolve from a purely presentational style (but with the actors sometimes facing each other, rather than the audience) to one of interior soliloquy and introspection.

Compliments are due sound designers Scott Lehrer and Jeff Curtis for helping to pull this off without any unpleasant evidence of the cast being amplified and for artfully blending the onstage musicians with the unseen off stage ensemble.

Once the original production left New York, most of the "names" (the original cast roster reads like a "who's hot" of Broadway) were replaced, often by other cast members and understudies moving up through the ranks. Before the end of the Broadway run, Faith Prince had already taken over for Blair Brown (Greta) and Stephen Bogardus had stepped in for a vacationing Christopher Walken (Gabriel.)

I'm just as happy that Prince was otherwise engaged this time so the lovely Kate Kearney-Patch could graduate from understudy to leading lady. She's not uncomfortable playing second fiddle to a husband who is clearly the center of attention in his doting Aunt's home and in their hearts.

Bogardus, however, is sorely missed. Sean Cullen, also one of the original understudies, isn't an engaging storyteller or an empathetic figure, nor did I find him endearing as Freddy Malins last year.

Newcomer Paul Anthony McGrane certainly won me over as Freddy who, despite haven fallen off the wagon, earns back his mother's approval and manages to rouse the dead (as well as the downstairs neighbor and the audience) in "Wake the Dead."

Patricia Kilgarriff as Aunt Kate also charmed me. She's another understudy deserving of promotion with her ability to suggest years of rivalry and jealousy combined with love and concern for her sister's well-being.

Of the other holdovers from the previous tour, Alice Cannon remains a stand out as the frail Aunt Julia. Also passing muster are Megan McGinnis as Lily, the maid; Paddy Croft, who originated the role of Mrs. Malins; and Laura Woyasz doubling as the younger Julia and Rita. The most quintessentially "Irish" of the holdovers is Shay Duffin, understandably well known for his one-man show as Brendan Behan.

I'm hoping the newcomers to the company will grow into their parts. I'd prefer a feistier Molly Ivors, one who's a bit more of a social misfit than Brandy Zarle, and a Michael (the young man who unknowingly triggers a forgotten passion in Gabriel's wife) who can catch and hold my attention more than Jesse Pennington does now.

The intricate and subtle staging sometimes makes it difficult to know where to look or who to follow. Overlapping currents of activity at the party are both intriguing and frustrating, making it impossible to catch every drift. This is one musical that would benefit from an intimate three-quarter or theater-in-the-round venue.

The final image, however, is simple and evocative. Gabriel watches over his sleeping wife, his life irrevocably altered by her surprising admission, as snow blankets "all of Ireland." The company joins in singing words taken from Joyce who ended his story with " ... he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

I was jolted back to the events of the previous thirty-six hours, reminded of the indelible images of something far worse blanketing our world, both literally and figuratively. And grateful for the respite spent in this other time and place, rich in words and music and thoughts worth considering.

At The Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston now through October 14th. For additional information and tickets call 617 266-0800 or visit www.bu.edu/HUNTINGTON.


See the current theatre schedule for the Boston area.



-- Suzanne Bixby



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