Christmas cheer, flavored with Irish charm, extends a little while longer courtesy of DC’s Scena Theatre and their production of “The Dead.”
Don’t allow the title to put you off completely. “The Dead” is a musical – more like a play with musical interludes – based on the 1914 short story by one of Ireland’s favorite sons, author James Joyce. Taking Joyce’s poignant tale as their guide, adaptors Richard Nelson (book & lyrics) and Shaun Davey (music & lyrics) crafted a charming, yet somewhat somber tale bursting with Celtic flavor and not a small measure of melancholy that is punctuated with pastiches of Irish ballads, rounds, and parlor songs of the bygone days at the turn of the last century.
…a quaint journey to old world Dublin with a panoply of quirky characters…
The holiday atmosphere is provided by the setting of the musical: the annual Christmas party given by two elderly spinsters, the Morkan sisters, Julia and Kate. Both music teachers in Old Dublin Town, the sisters gather family and friends in their warm, music-filled home on a snowy evening before Christmas, circa 1912. The elderly spinsters are looked after by their live-in niece Mary Jane, yet another unmarried music teacher. This trio of Irish charmers is played, respectively, by Andrea Hatfield (Julia), Rosemary Regan (Kate), and Stacy Whittle (Mary Jane). Each of these seasoned performers nearly twinkle when they lead the singing or take care of their party guests, especially the vivacious Whittle. Hatfield also captures a subtle frailty in Aunt Julia that displays more and more as the evening wears on, making a very touching performance. She is especially effective when she shares a beautiful moment with her younger self – played memorably by young Antonia Romm.
One of the guests to the annual soiree is the Morkans’ favorite nephew, Gabriel Conroy, a professor and part-time literary critic, who is joined by his wife, Gretta. These characters are really the central pair in the musical, as in Joyce’s original. The seemingly happy couple is haunted by routine and a myriad of feelings, especially Gretta, for whom memories of a lost love come rushing back, affecting the couple deeply. Louis Lavoie skillfully captures both the light comedy and dark pathos of Gabriel. As his haunted wife, Danielle Davy also finds the careful balance between the devoted spouse and the younger lass with a broken heart she cannot let go of as Gretta. Lavoie and Davy’s scenes together serve as emotional glue throughout the production. A highlight of the musical is when Davy takes her moment at the holiday party to sing “Adieu to Ballyshannon,” joined by Lavoie.
One of the most colorful guests at the party is Freddy Malins, played with loose limbedraucousness by John Gerard Healy. Malins arrives drunk and gets more intoxicated as the evening progresses, much to the consternation of his elderly mother, played with stoic understatement by Carol McCaffrey. Healy leads the guests in one of the most memorable musical numbers of the evening, “Wake the Dead,” in which everyone stomps the floor to annoy the unseen landlord who resides just below the Morkan apartment.
Other guests at the party include the Irish nationalist Molly, played with steely spunk by Mo O’Rourke; local celebrity singer Mr. Darcy played with pomposity by Leo Delgado; and the lone Protestant, Mr. Browne portrayed with effortless charm by Buck O’Leary. Servants and musicians are portrayed by Emily K. Collins and Daniel Riker.
Director Robert McNamara – also Scena Theatre’s founder and artistic director – is in his considerable element taking on this neglected title, having brought many Irish and European pieces to life in his more than thirty years directing in the area.
The actors are festooned in rich period attire and formalwear courtesy of costume designer Alisa Mandel that enhances the rich performances. The well-appointed and detailed setting, all warm and inviting, is designed by Carl Gudenius. Marianne Meadows rich lighting design gets the job done throughout the production and is especially effective during the moments when memory and reality converge.
I mentioned earlier that I would describe “The Dead” as more of a play with music rather than a fully realized musical. This is by no means a criticism of the piece, nor this well-directed production of this nearly forgotten show. Nearly all of the songs are sung within the context of the hostesses and their guests singing at the party. The authentic Celtic rhythms and plaintive tunes echo the Emerald Isle, lost love, and even rollicking drinking songs. The lyrics – adapted mostly by the co-authors from old poems and verse – comment on their lives and float around the themes of life and death but they do not propel the story forward. The songs enhance the play and add much color, and on that note, they certainly succeed.
Having heard of James Joyce’s “The Dead” from when it appeared on Broadway in 2000, I jumped at the chance to finally see it on stage. While watching it, I found myself thinking of Chekhov almost as much as Mr. Joyce. Why the Russian dramatist? How about interesting characters thrown together in close quarters where some are haunted by long-held questions or unrequited love? And not much else happens except personal epiphany and one character’s passing.
If you are looking for show-biz razzle-dazzle or flashy production numbers, you may want to see what else if playing on our local stages. But if you wish to take a quaint journey to old-world Dublin with a panoply of quirky characters and allow your thoughts to turn to lost-loves or unspoken melancholy, try knocking on the door of the Morkan sisters where you will be welcomed with open arms and Irish charm.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
“The Dead,” produced by Scena Theatre, plays through January 12, 2020, in the Lab Theatre II at the Atlas Performing Arts Center 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 399-7993 x2 or purchase them online here.