A Good Read

The Hunger Artists bring James Joyce's "The Dead" to life.

The relationship between literature and performance is a complex one.

Theater can affirm the brilliance of a work of literature or (at least temporarily) destroy it, so that we leave a production of, say, Hamletor Measure for Measure wondering guiltily if Shakespeare's reputation hasn't been...well...just a bit overblown. Fortunately, the Hunger Artists' reader's theater production of The Dead gives James Joyce's short story its full due.

The presentation gracefully marries Joyce's words with the presence -- that is, the voices, bodies and souls -- of the actors. There are layers of meaning to "The Dead," and the ensemble skillfully separates these layers, illuminates them and then weaves them back together.

The story describes a party at the home of aging sisters Kate and Julia Morkan and the niece who lives with them, Mary Jane. The reader sees the event through the eyes of Gabriel Conroy, who clearly stands in for Joyce.

There's chat, drunkenness, hilarity, dancing, argument and all kinds of food. Mary Jane plays the piano; Aunt Julia sings with unexpected brilliance. There are a few odd anomalous moments. When Gabriel attempts a light conversation with the maid, Lily, she says bitterly, "The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you." Does she find Gabriel patronizing or heavy-handed? Is she having love problems? Later, a Miss Ivors rebukes Gabriel for being insufficiently Irish, and he can't decipher whether she's teasing or genuinely angry. These and many other details tug at your attention and remain unresolved (what does the barely-hinted-at argument about whether applesauce should accompany the goose reveal about Mary Jane's relationship with Aunt Kate? Does Gabriel's wife, Gretta, resent his protectiveness?), but they cohere and add texture rather than disrupting. "The Dead" is about many things, or perhaps everything -- love, death, home, the depredations of time, our fumbling attempts to reach out to each other -- but the story is focused and unified. Furthermore, all of these abstract concepts are concretized in specific details: songs, foodstuffs, odd bits of conversation, the galoshes Gretta hates and that Gabriel insists she wear, and -- most of all -- the snow that accompanies every guest into the house and covers the ground outside.

In Gabriel's ambivalence toward his aunts, his vacillations between affection and contempt, you sense Joyce's feelings for the Ireland he grew up in -- how it stifled him and drew him in at the same time. This gives an edge to the joke about grandfather Patrick Morkan and his horse, Johnny, who one day started circling a statue of King William and couldn't be stopped.

The actors sit so close to the audience that you can see every flicker of emotion, hear every catch of breath. The performance takes place at the historic Byers-Evans House, and they are framed by one of the rooms, lamplight glowing on rich, dark wood. You feel you're actually at the party with them, and when a couple of latecomers enter, looking a trifle sheepish, you're surprised to see them joining you in the audience rather than engaging with the actors, so unusually permeable is the fourth wall.

Jeremy Cole's adaption is a skillful one. The actors each take on one or two specific characters; they speak the passages describing or concerning these people in their regular American accents, switching to Irish dialect for lines of direct dialogue. Each characterization is fully realized, but the actors also slip from one character to another with the ease of someone shrugging on a shawl. You get the sense that these performers genuinely venerate the text and that each is willing to subsume him or herself to its demands. And -- in a familiar paradox -- the text gives back fourfold: With Joyce's words in their mouths, these actors transcend themselves.

The group creates the Morkans' party with great gusto. Nancy Solomon, with her husky voice and intense emotional energy, is an engaging Aunt Kate, full of warmth and contradiction. Joan Staniunas intrigues as Aunt Julia, giving the character the fading vagueness we expect, but also a hint of insinuating anger that I don't recall from the story. These two women and Diane Wziontka, as Mary Jane, share a real chemistry. It's fun watching them giggle and gossip, their vivacity threatening now and then to take over the entire production.

Eventually, the party ends. Gabriel, read by Jim Whiteman, observes Gretta (also Diane Wziontka) standing by the stairs, listening, as another guest -- a professional but currently hoarse-throated tenor -- sings "The Lass of Aughrim." Gabriel sees her momentarily as a stranger. He begins to remember moments from their life together and to feel an intense yearning for her. Later, in their hotel room, he finds out how different their thoughts have been -- that where he felt desire, Gretta was overwhelmed with grief. In the story's mysterious and beautiful final lines, he moves toward insight and resignation. Cole's direction here achieves perfect pitch. Though Joyce describes Gabriel touching Gretta and putting his arm around her, the actors don't do these things. They just stand facing each other, and their restraint functions like silence in music or white space in art; there's something extraordinarily moving about it.

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