There are some experiences so basic and common to all of us that simply bringing them out evokes primal force. One of them is the family get-together, with all of its cross-currents, histories, artifices, tensions, jokes and faithful hugs, however brief, made poignant by the knowledge that we all come from somebody, and most of the somebodies we come from are dead.
It’s that urgent line, of the light of being alive pressing against the darkness that surrounds us, that carries us through “The Dead” and around some blurred lines and missteps in the Richard Nelson adaptation of James Joyce’s beautiful short story.
The setting is the Morkans’ annual Christmas dinner party at their upstairs rooms in Dublin, an event Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate, and their niece Mary Jane, have hosted in sumptuous style for 30 years.
Their regulars include nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta; Mr. Browne, a dear friend even if he is Protestant; the dependably inebriated Freddy Malins and his long-suffering mother, Mrs. Malins; and the more recent arrivals, the testy nationalist Miss Molly Ivors and the opera singer Bartell D’Arcy.
Since it’s 1904, those present do what families everywhere did at the time: They gather around the parlor piano for song and dance. They tell jokes and stories. They reminisce, demur shyly from compliments and share fluttering covert anxieties and brief bitter memories. Gabriel will rise at dinner’s end to make his annual florid speech. The main difference this year is that Julia’s weak spells are more pronounced, and Gretta is held in unusual reveries.
For as long as Nelson’s adaptation (Shaun Davey did the music, and both conceived the lyrics) sticks to the pleasures of family and friends entertaining each other, or even in the way loved ones will recall an intimate song, the music seems natural. There are a couple of instances, however, when it just sounds like showbiz, and then the production feels false. Nelson has taken liberties with Joyce’s crystalline prose, which sometimes works, as when Gabriel narrates part of the story, but sometimes is theatrically overinflated — particularly at the end, when Joyce’s language, which itself aspires to music, is plenty lyrical enough and doesn’t need quite the melodic plumping up it gets here.
But there are a lot of subtleties in this production (Gabriel is too preoccupied with his speech to notice Gretta’s darkening mood) and one brilliant touch: reconceiving D’Arcy as a countertenor and not a tenor, so that his voice more closely evokes the loving 17-year-old boy in Gretta’s memory.
The ensemble generally works well, if sometimes obviously. Marni Nixon as Kate is expert at showing how a female host of a certain age can subtly dominate a table; Stephen Spinella is an endearingly loose-limbed drunken Freddy; and John Kelly sings D’Arcy’s song in just the way a beautifully impromptu moment will stop conversation and touch everyone in a room.
Sally Ann Howes’ Julia appeared empty and overstylized on opening night, and there wasn’t much going on inside Faith Prince’s Gretta — not even the emotions Gabriel attributes to her in front of our eyes.
Stephen Bogardus’ dignified performance as Gabriel is the more amazing for having survived two elements Nelson took away from Joyce’s portrayal: Gabriel’s unhappy knowledge that he’s given to fatuousness and the deep sensual hunger he feels for Gretta before she turns him away. Bogardus shows us how gentle kindness itself is an act of mortal courage.
Few leave the theater unmoved by “The Dead’s” final enveloping image of snow falling over Ireland and the world, over all the living and the dead — an evocation of being alone together.