Singing Gabriel

James Joyce's short story The Dead is filled with the lush, lyrical prose that made the Irish writer one of the most important of the 20th century. Psychologically rich in its observations, The Dead concentrates on the inner struggles of Gabriel Conroy, a hapless everyman who must learn how fragile life can be. It's perhaps the last story on earth one might imagine as a musical.

The fact that dramatists Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey have somehow managed to tease the famous tale into song is nothing short of astonishing. Even more surprising, Main Street Theater's charming production of The Dead captures the gorgeous depth of Joyce's story, weaving theatrical drama into Gabriel's psychological grapplings with moving grace.

The story takes place one night when Gabriel and his wife, Gretta, attend a Christmas party hosted by two spinster aunts. Kate and Julia are the matriarchs of the extended family, and everyone shows up for the yearly event despite the cold. Gabriel, the patriarch, carves the goose and gives the annual toast.

This is not high drama, but several of the show's characters spice up the evening. Mr. Browne (David Downing) is a middle-aged drunk who entices fellow partyer Freddy Malins (Kregg Alan Dailey) into bad behavior. Freddy's mother (Elaine Edstrom) has made him "take the pledge," but nothing will change his wild side. He's the life of the dinner despite the fact that his mom is all atwitter over his behavior.

The independent Miss Molly Ivors (Celeste Roberts) causes the biggest uproar, challenging Gabriel's ideas about "the continent." Gabriel is one of those Irish men who think everything is better across the channel. When he discusses his vacation plans, the conversation escalates into a yelling match between him and Miss Ivors. In Joyce's story, Gabriel blushes and is enraged at the woman's accusations, but the sparring between the two never escalates into shouting. But on stage, the moment works. And it gives dramatic insight into Gabriel's internal turmoil. He doesn't like being teased, and Miss Ivors stabs him to the core when she accuses him of being disloyal to his Irish heritage.

The story's tenderness is provided by the dear old aunts, two wonderfully charismatic women cast by director Ron Jones. Marietta Marich makes a stately Julia. She's recently been fired from the church choir, where she's sung as soloist for most of her life. Marich captures the brokenhearted dignity of her character, who watches over the party with queenlike good humor despite her own disappointments. And Sylvia Froman's Kate is the sprightly beauty of the two, fussing over her sister with the irritated adoration that comes from decades of looking up to a demanding sibling.

Of course, it's Gabriel who must carry the weight of the show. Nelson and Davey have woven lines from Joyce's narrative into the play and made Gabriel the narrator as well as the central character. It's an odd choice, considering that the narrator of Joyce's story has a good deal of ironic distance from Gabriel. But the playwrights manage to pull irony into the script by having Gabriel look back on the evening, observing his own behavior through the lens of time. That's how he's able to make mistakes and comment on them at the same time.

As Gabriel, actor Joel Sandel looks nothing like the character Joyce describes in his short story. Still, Sandel wastes little time convincing us that he's exactly what Joyce intended all along. There's a lovely lost quality to Sandel's Gabriel. He's the sort of fellow who seems full of confidence, but the veneer of that confidence is slowly worn away over the course of the evening. By the last scene, when Gabriel discovers that his beautiful wife was once in love with another man, he's as vulnerable as a man can be. The tragic banality of Gabriel's discovery, and the care with which that discovery is evoked by Sandel, are a large part of what makes this production so successful.

So is Kaytha Coker's very pretty Gretta. Coker's clear, almost birdlike singing is melancholy and moving. And her performance as the homemaker with a dark secret is both subtle and mesmerizing.

One of the reasons the music works is that it's woven into the production so organically. Most of the songs are Irish party tunes, sung by the revelers to each other. The only missteps are toward the end, when Nelson and Davey put Joyce's poetic speeches to music. These moments easily could have been spoken and probably should have been.

Even with a few bobbles, The Dead makes for a persuasive musical. Clearly meant as Main Street's holiday offering, the production captures the generous spirit of the season as well as the emotional depth of Joyce's story.

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Lee Williams