James Joyce's short story "The Dead" was the last chapter of his book The Dubliners. In the story Joyce wanted to sum up the history of Ireland, but in particular the spiritual stagnation of the people in Dublin.
Some see the story as presenting his reasons for leaving Ireland. Whatever those reasons were, his feelings were very mixed. He respected the traditions and quaintness of the old Ireland, but at the same time he knew that most of that was of the past.
The plot involves Gabriel, a rather self-absorbed man, recalling the annual Christmas party held at his aunts' house, with three generations of his family present. His mood alternates between nostalgia and contempt. His aunt dies. His own illusion is shattered when he discovers that years ago his precious wife loved another man, who is now dead but for whom she still weeps.
This wonderful, poetic story was later turned into an equally wonderful musical with music by Shaun Davey, book by Richard Nelson, and lyrics conceived and adapted by Nelson and Davey. The show contains fifteen songs which sound like old Irish songs but are really newly minted, though the lyrics are often borrowed. It is a tribute to Davey that he fools you into thinking the music is authentic. The story works very well as a musical; it is a natural marriage, dare I say made in Heaven. The Open Fist Theatre is giving the show a terrific revival.
The extremely talented Rob Nagle plays Gabriel with wit, intelligence, and depth of feeling. His character reminds us that although snow on a lake's surface can look beautiful, the lake underneath has unimagined depths. Symbolically, the depths include everything from joy, music, and drinking, to infidelity, stagnation, death of spirit, and immense love. Nagle does a masterful job of keeping us from being lulled by the music and poetry while at the same time showing us its beauty.
The rest of the cast is also very good, with a lovely cameo by Jackie Lynn Colton as the shy, retiring aunt Julia. She manages to be sweet, funny, and pathetic all at the same time. I was also quite taken with Michael Franco as the drunken but lively Freddie Mallins, and by Jake Wesley Stewart (who was so good in CityKid) as the young Michael.
Stewart sings and dances well. The same can’t be said of the rest of the cast, and if you are expecting great voices like those in the Broadway production, you will be disappointed. But this is an up-close kind of production, and the not-so-perfect singing adds poignancy to the proceedings. It's the same feeling one might get at one's own family Christmas party as the relatives start to sing carols.
The production is very well directed by the award-winning Charles Otte. He keeps the party real at all times, but focuses the action where it needs to be focused. He also plays the violin in the superb band, which is rounded out by cellist Jennifer Richardson, guitarist Amy Tzagournis, and pianist Dean Mora, who is also the Musical Director.
The Dead has been extended through April 12 at The Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood. See it for an evening that will transport you.