Last year, Irish Repertory Theatre immersed audiences in the high-spirited yet haunting world of James Joyce's story The Dead in the elegant rooms of the American Irish Historical Society. It has done so again this year, perhaps with an eye to making the production an annual tradition. We can only hope that this is the case, since The Dead, 1904 makes a welcome and decidedly grown-up addition to the holiday season's usual roster of theatrical fare. Ciarán O'Reilly once again directs a superb cast featuring Melissa Gilbert in the central role of Gretta in a production that includes a satisfyingly plentiful supper (catered by Great Performances) reminiscent of the meal Joyce describes in his story.
Before the play gets underway, Lily, the maid (an amusingly brusque Clare O'Malley), quickly ushers guests up a stairway to the warmly lit rooms (lighting design by Michael Gottlieb) of kindly dowagers Julia and Kate Morkan (played with unflagging humor by Patti Perkins and Patricia Kilgarriff, respectively), who are hosting their annual holiday party in Dublin. Whiskey, sherry, stout, and punch are served to audience members as the two Miss Morkans and their niece, Mary Jane (golden-voiced vocalist Kimberly Doreen Burns), welcome a bevy of local characters, including the Irish nationalist Molly Ivors (Aedín Moloney), the tenor Bartell D'Arcy (John Treacy Egan), the Protestant Mr. Browne (Peter Cormican), violinist Miss Daly (Megan Loomis), the drunk Freddy Malins (James Russell), and Freddy's mother (Terry Donnelly).
Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz's adaptation captures the deceptively plotless narrative of Joyce's story, with its seemingly random conversations and musical interludes (Burns's vocal solo is a highlight). The festivities begin with dancing (choreography by Barry McNabb), humorous anecdotes, and tense tête-à-têtes. But with the entrance of diffident teacher Gabriel Conroy (a friendly and formal Rufus Collins) and his wife, Gretta (Gilbert in a reserved yet poignant performance), the proceedings take on dramatic tension. After a supper at which Gabriel delivers a well-received but uninspired speech about Irish hospitality, Gretta hears a song that triggers a memory from her youth, and she tells Gabriel about a young man, Michael Furey, who braved a frigidly cold night and died of exposure all because of his love for her. The revelation about his wife's past causes Gabriel to question his own reserved, cloistered existence, since he has never known anything resembling the all-consuming passion of Gretta's dead lover.
O'Reilly and the cast do a marvelous job integrating the audience into this immersive play, especially at the well-laid dinner table where Kate never fails to turn and give a comical glance of distress every time Freddy says something untoward. The dining room is the only place onlookers are guaranteed a seat, since a limited number of chairs are available in the other rooms. That said, it's easier to take in all the action, which moves between rooms, while milling about with the actors.
The feeling of being Julia and Kate's guests is the real charm here. It's not necessary to come dressed in the fashion of the time; it would be hard to compete anyway with Leon Dobkowski's exquisite period-inspired costumes and the precise hairstyles and wigs of Robert-Charles Vallance. But along with the scrumptious holiday meal and the careful details woven into this production, The Dead, 1904 gives the uncanny sense of entering a beautifully wrought literary world that conjures the misty mood of the holiday season as present joys mingle gently with wistful memories of the past.
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