The Hunger Artists have made something of a tradition of staging a reading of James Joyce's The Dead in the historic Byers-Evans House at the beginning of each new year, and it's a good tradition. The story, subtle and beautifully multi-layered, filled with references to snow, memory and, as the title suggests, the dead -- both familial and historical -- is enhanced by the intimacy of the setting, the softly lit lamps, gleaming woods and Victorian furniture, and the nearness of the actors, who are positioned only three feet or so from the front row of the audience.

The Dead focuses on the annual Christmas dinner at the Dublin home of elderly sisters Kate and Julia Morkan; the central figure is the women's nephew, Gabriel, who arrives early in the proceedings with his wife, Gretta. The piece is made up of small moments, some funny, some thought-provoking, some mildly jarring. We get descriptions of food and drink, reminiscences, wistful references to music. Apparently well-worn anecdotes are retold; the characters deal with the nagging issues that plague all family parties, now and a century ago -- the embarrassingly soused guest, rivalries of varying intensities, displays of vanity, political disputes. When Gabriel gives his coat to the maid, Lily, and attempts a small pleasantry, she snaps at him. This leads to a surge of self-doubt in which he questions not only the speech he's planning to deliver at dinner, but his very sense of the way things are in the world. His insecurity deepens when the feisty Miss Ivor rebukes him for being insufficiently Irish, and he can't quite tell whether she's jesting or genuinely contemptuous. Twice, music works its astonishing effect on the guests: Aunt Julia, trembling on the verge of dementia, rises to sing, and her voice is clear and true. Later, Gretta overhears the tenor Bartell D'Arcy, who has refused to perform for the other guests on the grounds that he has a cold, singing alone upstairs. The tune, "The Lass of Aughrim," unleashes a flood of memory in her. Gabriel watches Gretta listening, and afterwards, escorting her back to their hotel, he feels a powerful rush of love for her. But when they get to their room, her revelation of her thoughts completes his discomfiture and reawakens his sense of the tentativeness of his world. In the story's extraordinary last paragraphs, he arrives at a kind of balance and acceptance.

Although the acting ensemble communicates the story's warmth, humor and charm, they do less well in evoking its depth and poignancy. I attended on opening night; there was still some unsureness to the reading, and the Irish accents were occasionally shaky. But the rhythms among the actors may have achieved more flow by now. A production like this requires great subtlety -- the arch of an eyebrow or turn of a head communicates volumes -- and every gesture and intonation also has to ring deep and true. I saw the reading staged by the Hunger Artists in 2002. The characters felt richer, there was more of a sense of interplay between them, and they seemed more at ease with the conventions of reader's theater. I'd quarrel with a couple of directorial decisions. Once or twice, a male member of the cast spoke in falsetto to represent a minor female character, and this was a little distracting, though also amusing.

Joan Staniunas, who has played Aunt Julia in previous versions of The Dead, was clearly the most at home with the material, and she had some revelatory moments. But she also missed one of the most important. When Aunt Julia is supposed to be singing, Staniunas stands stock still while recorded music plays and another cast member narrates the description: "To follow the voice, without looking at the singer's face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight." Staniunas's ironic expression at this moment -- as if she were commenting silently on the ridiculousness of having to mime or worrying about the quality of the sound coming from behind her -- undercut the meaning and melody of the words. Dell Domnik hadn't yet fully inhabited the character of Gabriel, though he may have done so by now. Stacey Nelms, in the key role of Gretta, seemed more like a young girl than a woman seasoned by sorrow. Nonetheless, the cast brings genuine poignancy to the ending, and the reading still provides a perfect way to warm yourself on a January evening.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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