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A Holiday Party Turns Political in The Dead, 1904

Irish Repertory Theatre's adaptation of James Joyce's story returns for a third run.

Melissa Gilbert (seated left) and Rufus Collins star in The Dead, 1904, based on a story by James Joyce and directed by Ciarán O'Reilly for Irish Repertory Company at the American Irish Historical Society.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol has James Joyce's The Dead beat when it comes to stories you might read aloud by the yule log. But an argument can be made for making the latter a Christmas staple too. Its holiday-party setting, complete with petty bickering over politics, religion, and so on, gives The Dead the cozy familiarity of turkey and mashed potatoes served with a heaping spoonful of agita.

Irish Repertory Theatre has tapped into that familiarity with its genial production of Joyce's story, adapted by Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz. This is its third incarnation of The Dead, 1904, directed by Ciarán O'Reilly at the American Irish Historical Society, located in a Beaux Arts building on the Upper East Side. Melissa Gilbert reprises her role as Gretta, a woman haunted by the memory of a lost love, alongside new and returning cast members. Joyce's story was adapted for the big screen by John Huston in a 1987 film version and for the Broadway stage in a 2000 musical, but neither could ever make us a part of the story the way Irish Rep's intimate, immersive production does.

Robert Mack plays Bartell D'Arcy, who sings the moving ballad "The Lass of Aughrim."
(© Carol Rosegg)

Audience members are transported to the Dublin home of elderly sisters Kate and Julia Morkan on January 6, 1904. Guests are greeted by the maid, Lily (impeccable performance by Meg Hennessy), at the foot of a staircase that leads to the second floor, where they are offered sherry, whiskey, and punch. Aunt Kate (a comically proper Patricia Kilgarriff) races about, making sure everything is ready for the party she throws every year with the increasingly absentminded Julia (an endearing Patti Perkins) and her niece, the talented pianist Mary Jane (charming performance by Kimberly Doreen Burns).

One by one, denizens of Dublin join the party amid drinking and chatter, and, since we're guests at the party too, we're privy to their overheard conversations. There's the inebriated Freddy Malins (a slurring Ciarán Byrne) over-complimenting Aunt Julia for her singing, and his appalled mother (a delightfully discomfited Terry Donnelly) shaking her head from the sidelines; there's also Miss Daly (the talented violinist Heather Martin Bixler) flirting with the tenor Bartell D'Arcy (exquisite vocals by Robert Mack). Scenes pass seamlessly from one to the next as the cast (wearing Leon Dobkowski's lovely period-inspired costumes) move among the audience.

Kimberly Doreen Burns as Mary Jane, Patricia Kilgarriff as Aunt Kate, and Patti Perkins as Aunt Julia in Irish Rep's The Dead, 1904.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Gabriel Conroy (Rufus Collins portraying the diffident intellectual) enters early on with his wife, Gretta (Gilbert giving a rich, subtle performance). Gabriel is sick to death with Ireland and has started writing for a British-leaning paper. As he anxiously thinks about the speech he'll make at dinner, the nationalist Molly Ivors (performed with pitch-perfect disdain by Aedín Moloney) calls him out for his British sympathies, insulting him with a pejorative term for an Anglophile Irishman: "West Briton!" she whispers at him during a dance.

Though the criticism unnerves him, he stands confidently at the head of the table in the dining room. There, the audience joins the party for a holiday feast inspired by the story (Great Performances caters the event), with figs and celery stalks sitting beside traditional American fare like turkey and sweet cranberry sauce. (Though the food was delicious, dinner and wine service wrapped up too quickly at the performance I attended; a more leisurely dining experience should be expected given the ticket price.)

Melissa Gilbert reprises her role as Gretta Conroy in The Dead, 1904.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Talk turns to religion (made slightly awkward by the Protestant Mr. Browne's eye-rolling dad humor, executed brilliantly by Peter Cormican) and opera (Freddy's indiscreet comment about Browne not taking a black tenor seriously sucks the oxygen from the room). Though the setting is 1904, these conversations have currency. Gabriel's comment "we are living in a skeptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age" elicited a "Hear! Hear!" from a member of the audience.

The evening passes like a waking dream, with Michael Gottlieb's chandelier lighting warming the house's rooms and M. Florian Staab's unobtrusive sound design enhancing the show's several musical numbers (Burns's performance of Thomas Moore's "Oh Ye Dead" during the dinner is a highlight). The festive atmosphere gives way to somber musings later on, first with Mack's gorgeous rendition of "The Lass of Aughrim," and later in the dimly lit room of the final scene, in which Gretta reveals a long-held secret that shakes her husband to his core. It's a fitting theme for a Christmas story — a ghostly memory that prods us to reflect on the past.

Peter Cormican as Mr. Browne, Ciarán Byrne as Freddy Malins, Terry Donnelly as Mrs. Malins, and Melissa Gilbert as Gretta Conroy in Irish Repertory Theatre's immersive production of The Dead, 1904.
(© Carol Rosegg)