Wilmington’s “Off-Broadway” City Theater Company opens its 21st season by returning to its early roots in the tradition of Irish community theater with a holiday production of JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD. The troupe began in 1993, with many of its performances staged at O’Friel’s Irish Pub in downtown Wilmington, so for this quintessential Irish classic, director Michael Gray had designers Vicki Neale and Richard Kendrick transform OperaDelaware Studios’ black box space into a working Irish pub–with table seating and bar service available throughout the show–for its immersive interpretation.
The one-act musical adaptation (by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey) of Joyce’s short story (the last and longest in his Dubliners collection of 1914) is presented as a memory play, told through narration and re-enactments. It also incorporates traditional Irish-style folk songs and ceili dancing into the tale of the annual Christmastime dinner party hosted in Dublin by elderly sisters Kate and Julia Morkan, which, for their nephew Gabriel Conroy (the narrator), results in a painful epiphany about love and loss, the present and the past, and the nature of life and death.
Paul McElwee stars as Gabriel; he brings heart-wrenching pathos to Joyce’s poetic prose and his character’s personal sadness as he recounts the events of the fateful night. CTC’s large eighteen-person ensemble of actors and live musicians portray two generations of Gabriel’s family and friends, who engage each other in teasing and bickering, partisan politics, lively stepping, moving ballads, and ardent anthems (Jenna Kuerzi, as the strident nationalist Molly Ivors, packs a wallop with her powerful vocals). But once the drinks stop flowing and the gathering ends, Gabriel has an eye-opening experience with his wife Gretta (Kerry Kristine McElrone, who also co-designed the hardy Irish costumes with Lauren Peters).
Her revelation launches him on an introspective journey and his disquieting recognition of the omnipresence of aging, the inevitability of death, the devastation of lost loved ones that never leaves you, and the pervasive sense of melancholy underlying the craic of the party. You will be haunted by McElwee’s stirring rendition of Gabriel’s closing lines, when “his soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”[OperaDelaware Studios, 4 S. Poplar Street, Wilmington, DE] December 5-20, 2014; city-theater.org.