Quotidian Theatre Company’s powerful and moving production of James Joyce’s The Dead is their first musical, or, as Director and company co-founder Jack Sbarbori puts it, a “play with music.” He has done a fantastic job of imbuing every scene of this ensemble piece with humor and heart. Part of the thanks goes to Joyce, of course, for his imminently relatable characters and layers of symbolism in the original text, as well as Shaun David for adapting the story so in his book, and Richard Nelson for a beautiful Irish score (comprised of musical hall songs, parlor songs, Joyce’s text, lyrics mostly adapted from Irish poetry, and original lyrics) with songs that sound like people have been singing for centuries.
Quotidian Theatre Company is a local company known for their high-quality productions of the classics and modern pieces that are well on their way to becoming classics. They aim, as they say, for an “understated, impressionistic style and to find truth and beauty in the every day.” They have succeeded in yet another production.
The play spans a single evening as the Morkan sisters throw a Christmas party and the guests gather to talk politics and religion and play out the great and small dramas of an Irish family amidst some glorious music, as that is what the sisters are known for. As the narrator of the evening, Gabriel Conroy (Steve Beall), says, “Ireland has no tradition which does it so much honor as that of its hospitality.” Some have said that Joyce wrote the story as a tribute to that hospitality. The music written for this play does justice to the theme, running the gauntlet from pub songs to spirituals to political rousers.
The first of two main stories concerns Aunt Julia (Jane Squier Bruns) and Aunt Kate (Barbara Scheide) who pull off the party even as Aunt Julia’s health is failing. They sing together once, a beautiful song called “When Lovely Lady” and both actors have truly lovely voices, but the scene is so powerful because of all they are able to convey in the song as Julia tries to finish and Kate rises to help her. Jane Squier Bruns gives an amazing performance in this key roll as the aging, fading but still laughing matriarch.
Sbarbori has been able to do that with every actor on every song. This could have been a nice concert of traditional Irish tunes, but he makes sure every song is about the story and these characters’ lives. Normally, there would be one or two moments you could take home to contemplate – one magic song or laugh – but this musical makes every moment special, especially when Steve Beall and Janice Hall are onstage. They play Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, an old married couple who are still in love, as painful as that can be, in the second main story of the evening. Gabriel narrates, stepping smoothly in and out of the action and commanding the stage. His songs are raw and heartfelt. Hall has a heavenly voice and matches Beall’s presence. Her solo, “Goldenhair,” froze me in my seat. They manage to conjure decades of history between them in their performances.
The rest of the cast is similarly talented – tackling Irish accents with aplomb, and imbuing every character with rich history and pathos. Carolyn Myers (Molly Ivers) shines as a young, very patriotic guest and Vanessa Kinzey (Mary Jane Morkan) has an impressive voice. But the best times came when they sang as an ensemble. The rousing number “Wake the Dead” really could have.
That number and several others featured traditional Irish dancing, which is the wilder more passionate precursor of our modern square dances. The New Century American Irish-Arts Company, a performance group for traditional Irish arts, assisted them. Choreographers Kara Haslbeck, Catherine Marafino, and co-founder Kate Bole created some rousing dances and co-founder Peter Price plays the button accordion, and sings during the production.
Dancing these intricate steps on the set was no mean feat as it’s a small stage. Director Jack Sbabori created the set as an intimate family parlor with authentic and beautiful wooden furniture pieces from the turn of the century and some beautiful china and crystals settings. Wallpaper cleverly delineates one room from another, and the pleasant crush of chairs and people with the band right there on stage feels like a true party.
The band is an intimate part of the action, even having some speaking roles at points. They are led by the piano player Valerie A Higgs who does a good job supporting the singers without overwhelming them and playing some beautiful music. She is accompanied by Sarah Foard on fiddle, Eric Abalahin on flute, and Tom Zebowitz on cello, who is responsible for the final haunting note of the piece. They clearly enjoyed themselves and the music.
The costumes by Quotidian co-founder Stephanie Mumford adds to the authenticity with suits and flowing, high-waisted skirts that telegraphed perfectly the differing generations as well as the social standing of each character. They were also well suited to each personality. Lighting Designer Don Slater did a fine job of conjuring the warm glow of gas lamps and managed to create the cleverest snow I’ve seen on a stage.
Again and again I was struck by how each moment was carefully and lovingly crafted. Each character had history and personality down to the toes of their boots and each song moved the story forward – devastating and uplifting in turn. In so many musicals I have seen, there have been a famous star or one huge mega musical number – but in this production every actor and every song and every moment is memorable.
Quotidian Theatre Company’s James Joyce’s The Dead makes for a very special night of theater.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
James Joyce’s The Dead plays from November 16-December 16, 2012 at Quotidian Theatre Company – at The Writer’s Center – 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets call (301) 816-1023, or email the theatre at email@example.com
The Cort Theatre Broadway production homepage with song clips.
Interview with Broadway cast member Marni Nixon and Quotidian member Janice Hall Pt. 1.
Interview with Broadway cast member Marni Nixon and Quotidian member Janice Hall Pt. 2.
Interview with Broadway cast member Marni Nixon and Quotidian member Janice Hall Pt. 3.