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There is a moment in James Joyce’s “The Dead” that sums up all that makes it wonderful. An elderly woman stands self-consciously in a crowded Christmas parlor, singing a sad song in a failing voice, and suddenly the mourning in her broken phrases is not just the mourning of a woman for her bygone youth or of a musician for a cherished talent slipping irrevocably away. There, for a lingering, lovely instant, it is the lament of a family for its lost traditions, the quiet keening of a people for a time and a way of thinking gone past recall. It is sweet and simple and achingly beautiful, fragile and haunting and unutterably sad. It will make you want to weep and, when you have done weeping, it will lift the weight of this world briefly from your shoulders.
That is the curiously cathartic power of music, after all, and that is the power of poetry. In “The Dead,” Joyce deployed the last in service to an elegantly simple story; in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey bring the first to bear as well, and its addition creates the purest kind of theatrical alchemy.
It would be tempting to argue, in fact, that Davey’s delicately emotional score, with its convincing new takes on compelling old poems, is the very element that brings Joyce’s story so vividly off the page and so vibrantly to life. “The Dead” is after all a story shot through with the promise of music, set at a holiday party where singing and dancing have become as essential to the season’s spirit as the groaning board Joyce describes so exactingly; the Misses Morkan are “the Three Graces” of middle-class Victorian Dublin, music teachers with a parlor full of guests who naturally incline in that direction. The leap from Joyce’s rendering of the party’s musical interludes to their actual portrayal is a short oneand intuitive enough once you see how Nelson and Davey accomplish it.
But if it is a very real accomplishment, it is not Davey’s alone. James Joyce’s “The Dead” turns out to be a musical that is and is not what we think of by that name, a show in which characters dance and sing as much for each other’s entertainment as to express their feelings. An oblique approach, certainly, but precisely the right one; it keeps the story’s emotions just under the surface, rather than pulling them out, putting them on melodic display as a traditional musical would. And so in remaking the story to suit the rhythms of stage action, in finding places to weave Davey’s music in, Nelson is able to transform the original without tearing its fabric. He has preserved intact “The Dead”‘s peculiar atmosphere, the blend of rejoicing and regret and intellectual remove that permits the story to traffic in sentiment without descending into sentimentality. A degree or two either way in his adaptation, the slightest moment of indulgence, and Nelson might have pushed the piece over the edge into mawkishness; the lightness of his touch is a talent nearly as rare in its field as Joyce’s was in literature.
If the combination of Nelson’s creative gifts and Davey’s serves the piece well, the interpretive talents of the cast they’ve assembled do nearly as much to generate the glow that lights it seemingly from within. Stephen Bogardus and Faith Prince create a quiet chemistry as the intellectual Gabriel, Joyce’s stand-in and the musical’s talk-to-the-audience narrator, and his wife, Gretta, as warm and engaging as Gabriel is awkward and aloof. Alice Cannon, as Gabriel’s frail aunt Julia Morkan, anchors that one transcendent moment early in the play; later, Marni Nixon (yes, that Marni Nixon) matches her step for step in a lighthearted romp of a number that, before it can end, has gathered a shadow or two in its wake.
Stephanie J. Block is a picture of shy propriety as their niece Mary Jane, third of the Three Graces, and Angela
Christian stands out among the guests as the flame-haired Molly Ivors, a fierce young Irish nationalist who clashes with Gabriel early on, her passion striking sparks against his academic’s impatience with her politics and its implicit parochialism. All of the actors find what may strike some as surprising subtleties in their characters, and no single performance slips below the production’s generally high standardthough John Kelly, as the “musical celebrity” Bartell D’Arcy, struggles with what’s clearly meant to be a major moment, shifting in and out of a strained falsetto as he sings an overwrought serenade for the ailing Julia.
But that, which contributes to a slight slackening of pace in the last 10 minutes, is the nearest thing to a weakness in what’s otherwise a tremendously rewarding two hours. The old truism about literary adaptations for the stagethat there are those to please the populists and those to please the puristsmay not apply here. Carefully crafted and beautifully staged, James Joyce’s “The Dead” is that rare adaptationa transfiguration, eventhat appeals to the best instincts of both.
Except perhaps for its too-cute titlewhich quotes “The Dead”‘s famous closing line and reads like an attempt to capitalize on someone else’s marketing budgetKeegan Theatre’s latest effort, Synge With Yeats: The living and the Dead, hasn’t much directly to do with what’s going on over at the Kennedy Center.
Indirectly, thoughwell, it would be hard not to find parallels. J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea, the first of Keegan Theatre’s four one-acts, is a classic study of hard life in the Aran Isles, an unforgiving frontier territory Joyce’s nationalist Molly Ivors romanticizes as unspoiled. In the Shadow of the Glen is Synge’s decidedly tart take on a domestic politics that only Joyce hints at in “The Dead,” and the question of Irish nationalism comes up again in Yeats’ beautifully metaphorical Cathleen Ni Hoolihan.
The performances here are as uneven as the accents in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” though only Yeats’ Purgatory is a real disappointment; it’s a two-character play, and Keegan pairs an appealing but seemingly inexperienced young actor (Wyatt Fenner) with an experienced but amateurish colleague (Patrick Trainor) who overplays the scene’s melodrama and underwhelms with his command of the fierce and heady poetry that usually makes it palatable. (To be fair to Keegan, it must be noted that another actor stepped aside at the last minute, leaving the company reshuffling its cast shortly before opening.)
There are lovely moments, though, from Melissa Flaim and Sheri Herren in the Synge playsand from Linda High, who begins a bit broadly but finds real pathos in the great monologue, equal parts benediction and curse, that brings Riders to the Sea to its harrowing close.
No one play is an unalloyed success; in general, though, director Mark A. Rhea has put together a poignant look at the sway the dead maintain over the livingand how, in choosing how we live, we gain some small sway over death. CP