JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD at City Theater Company

by Rosanne DellAversano

City Theater Company officially begins its 21st season by returning to when the fledgling group performed upstairs at O’Friel’s Pub with a staging of the very Irish JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD. In order to heighten the audience’s entry to the setting of Ireland, CTC has converted the Black Box at OperaDelaware into an Irish pub complete with various types of seating (small table, benches, wooden chairs, bar stool) and an actively working bar which operates throughout the show. The atmosphere created serves well to immerse one into an Irish pub with its usual fellowship and revelry.

JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD, a musical with book by Richard Nelson and music by Shaun Davey, is based upon James Joyce’s short story, The Dead – the final piece in Joyce’s masterful 1914 short story collection, Dubliners. Joyce, known as a pioneer in Modernist literature with strong use of stream-of-consciousness, shifts away from such with The Dead to bring forth a heightened use of strictly focused narrative of lengthy ruminations on Irish culture, patriarchy and the difficulties of growing old. THE DEAD is set in early 20th century Ireland, twelve days after Christmas, on the Feast of the Epiphany. As there are no notes in the program from the Director as to background or time setting, I was unsure as to actual time period for this production. The costumes (Kerry Kristine McElrone & Lauren Elizabeth Peters) give a slight hint but never clearly define time through an obscure incorporation of original period type pieces (long skirts, vintage accessories) to very modern (a pair of shorts on a female, modern tuxedo).

JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD opens with Gabriel Conroy (Paul McElwee) and his wife, Gretta Conroy (Kerry Kristine McElrone) arriving at a family holiday party hosted by Aunt Julia (Mary Catherine Kelley) and Aunt Kate (Katie Donovan). There is good cheer to be found as well as a bit of sassy political attitude courtesy of Molly Ivors (Jenna Kuerzi), unbecoming drunkenness of Freddy Malins (Patrick O’Hara), and independent feminism of Lily (Emma Orr). The party weaves though the usual course: greetings with drinking, music and dancing, dinner with drinking, music and dancing, after-dinner with drinking, music and dancing. Throughout the evening, Gabriel grapples with his disconnect to family, friends, younger generation, aging & dying, career ambitions, spousal attraction and himself.

In JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD, Gabriel acts as story narrator as well as event participant. This duality is unevenly managed by Paul McElwee. As narrator, McElwee gracefully vocalizes Joyce’s words with aplomb. However, as participant, McElwee falls short of fully engaging the audience in Gabriel’s anxiety. Gabriel’s epiphany isn’t one of thunderous intellectual reverberation; rather, it is quiet contemplation. As noted by others with regard to this particular work, quiet contemplation is difficult to capture on stage. I fully agree with this statement. Quiet contemplation requires precisely excised nuances that are deftly delivered. Unfortunately, this challenging aspiration goes unmet.

What suffers most in JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD is the lack of a true protagonist. Nelson’s book includes a great deal of Joyce’s original story dialogue but very little of Davey’s music effectively augments the spoken word. JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD is a play with parlor songs. The ensemble cast isn’t given the opportunity to fully develop characters, despite the piece running almost two hours without intermission. Just as a character begins to illuminate, an injudicious song breaks forth. Give the time taken for songs back to the actors, and this just might become an interesting, well-developed group of characters. And, since this is an Irish based theater piece, the music is strictly Irish. If you are unfamiliar with the style of Irish music, you may find it difficult to embrace as a musical theater offering as it is not typical or standard. Don’t expect dazzling vocals, complex harmonies or involved composition as they are not the bread and butter of this show. There are momentary bits of entertainment that will have you tapping your foot to the tunes but leave nothing to hum while driving home.

Some of the best frivolous entertainment is found during dinner when Aunt Julia, Aunt Kate and Mary Jane (quickly joined by Freddy) sing Naughty Girls. This ditty has you smiling the whole way through. A non-Irish tune is provided by party guest, Bartell D’Arcy (sung commendably by Rick Fountas) via an Italian aria. Brendan Sheehan as Michael musically fuels both cast and audience with his guitar flair, quality vocals and youthfully enthusiastic stage presence. It is clear that the cast thoroughly enjoys working with each other.

Should you attend CTC’s production of JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD be forewarned that the majority of seating is either a wooden chair or a very thinly padded wooden bench; thus, making 120 minutes of uninterrupted sitting difficult to manage. Also, sightlines are often obstructed for general seating.

Book by Richard Nelson
Music by Shaun Davey
Lyrics conceived and adapted by Richard Nelson & Shaun Davey
Directed by Michael Grey
Musical Direction by Joe Trainor
December 5 – 20, 2014
City Theater Company
4 S. Poplar Street
Wilmington, DE 19801

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