James Joyce’s The Dead at Bevard

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 10/22/09More articles
(Aubry Panel and Kevin McNamara as Gretta and Gabriel Conroy. Photo © tamaralee.biz, courtesy of Simply New Theatre)

You don’t see it very often. Even in old age, after the world’s accolades, country singer Johnny Cash always had that look on his face in photographs taken with his wife, June Carter Cash – that quiet, rapt, singular gaze, as if he still could not quite believe his luck that she was with him.

Say what you will about Simply New Theatre’s production of the Richard Nelson-Shaun Davey musical, Simply New Theatre "James Joyce's The Dead." But as Gabriel Conroy, actor Kevin McNamara conjures That Look as effortlessly as breath whenever Aubry Panek, as Gabriel’s wife Gretta, falls within his sight-lines. A bit vain and fussy, shyer than he’d admit, stuck in Dublin when he nurses grander Continental aspirations, Gabriel needs some saving grace. In a story about a world where so much occurs through looks and glances and grimaces, whether the play works at its core rests on this detail of the way Gabriel looks at Gretta and its counterweight – what Gabriel learns, for all his longing, is that he hasn’t really seen his wife at all. Though this play is set in 1914 Dublin, any Irish Catholic descendant living in Central New York will know that director John Nara and his excellent cast got the looks right. Here is a particular level of fidelity to Joyce’s story that I take to matter much more than the dubious scandal of setting Joyce’s hallowed work to dance tunes.

“The Dead” is the last and longest of 15 stories in Joyce’s “Dubliners” (1914), published on the eve of World War I and the subsequent bloody convulsion from which emerged the state of Ireland in 1921. Here, Joyce wrote about what he called “epiphanies” – seemingly small moments that change everything. As the culminating story, “The Dead” itself takes place on the mid-January Catholic holiday of Epiphany – “Little Christmas” – not much celebrated anymore, when the Three Wise Men finally arrived to give Jesus their gifts.

The director John Huston, with daughter Angelica as Gretta, took “The Dead” to the screen in 1987, a film widely respected for its own strengths but also for its fidelity to the text (although the character of Mr. Grace, who recites a long poem about lost love and appears in the play too, was Huston’s addition).

The stage musical premiered off-Broadway in 1999, moving to Broadway in 2000, where it ran for three months and won a Tony Award. Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey (who did the music for the wonderful 1998 film, Waking Ned Devine), take many liberties with the text. Besides leaving out whole chunks and adding the dance numbers, they make Gabriel the narrator, add a death-bed scene for Miss Julia, turn some of Gabriel’s reveries into song lyrics, and with a final embrace between Gabriel and Gretta suggest a different ending that strikes me as not entirely successful.

Joyce’s position being what it is – there are possibly more footnotes in Joycean scholarship than stones in Ireland – it’s not surprising that an early review in the music journal “Echo” chided Nelson and Davey for ignoring the “expectations” of “loyal Joyceans.” Another complained that the last scene amounted to “running over one of the most delicate moments in literature with a Broadway-bound chorus bus.”

The play’s second scene comprises three such song-and-dance numbers, with “Naughty Girls” at the center preceding a rousing, stomping, all-company “Wake the Dead.” “Naughty Girls” especially seems to answer the play’s anticipated critics, though it addresses the Catholic Church’s tight-around-the-mouth disapproval of any Irish antics whatsoever. With a refrain that includes the line “Rome is all a-whirl!” – here is the reference to ruffled Papal authority – the saucy “Naughty Girls” suggests that much of the fun in freedom lies exactly in kicking over the traces. ( “Dubliners” itself was immediately banned in Ireland and placed on the Church’s list of forbidden books.) “Naughty Girls” is performed first by Kate, Julia and Mary Jane Morkan, with lots of synchronized hip shakes, glimpses of leg and risqué umbrella use, and then – upping the ante – by Freddy, Mr. Browne and Mr. Grace. Intriguingly, reviews of other productions describe this as an “all-company number,” so apparently the quasi-drag show is Simply New’s own inspired addition.

Though just a tad long at two and a half hours – the two intermissions could be shorter – in this production a great deal works and, starting with the two leads, nearly every performance is excellent. It’s been a particularly good season so far for company veterans Bill Molesky (superb as drunken Freddy Malins) and Jillian Dailey (perfect as Molly Ivors). As Julia and Kate Morkan, Lorraine Grande and Catherine Rush Osinski are very strong. Young Chad Healy, who appeared briefly in Simply New’s recent “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” has a very small part here but such natural presence that I look forward to larger roles for him. The singing is very good and dance numbers come off surprisingly well in such a small space.

May Simply New be so inspired to transgression again.

This review appears in the 10/22/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle on p.13. “James Joyce’s The Dead” runs Friday, 10/23 and Saturday, 10/24 at 8:00 PM, with a final 4:00 PM matinee on Sunday, 10/25. Tickets at simplynewtheatre.com or 558.9124. Find John Huston’s film version at Netflix, with a new DVD available on 11/3. Simply New reprises its production of “Trumbo” on 11/27 – 28. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: Aubry Panel,Kevin McNamara,Simply New Theatre,James Joyce's The Dead,Bill Molesky,Freddy Malins,Jillian Dailey,John Huston film,Syracuse theater,Molly Ivors,Kate Morkan, Lorraine Grande,Catherine Rush Osinski
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 2.7/5 (10 votes cast)

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