You are cordially invited by the Morkan sisters, Kate and Julia, to attend the annual Christmas dinner held at their home in Dublin.
You can eat, drink, and make merry, all the while observing their other guests do the same on this winter evening in 1904; particularly so their middle-aged nephew, Gabriel, a college professor and writer whose moody ruminations are integral to this event based upon a classic story from James Joyce’s Dubliners.
A respectful page-to-stage adaptation by Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz, The Dead, 1904, returns for a third holiday season as an immersive production by the Irish Repertory Theatre.
Blessedly, it happens to be a gently immersive experience for viewers (only 57 people can attend each performance) in that nobody has to wear masks, dance, play confrontational patty-cake with the actors, chase people from room to room, or get spattered by whatever’s being flung around. Instead, The Dead, 1904 is a fly-on-the-wall experience during which you can imbibe a few drinks, enjoy a nice dinner and, if you happen to feel like it, fleetingly converse with the characters as they brush by.
The show is staged on the premises of the American Irish Historical Society, which is situated in a grand Fifth Avenue townhouse of 1901 vintage. With its elegant Ogden Codman, Jr. interiors, these Beaux-Arts surroundings appear too fancy to believably represent the Morkans’ upper middle class household, but nevertheless it’s a treat to spend two hours in such swell circumstances.
It begins in a white marble vestibule, where coats are checked and guests mingle until Lily (Meg Hennessy), a mildly temperamental maid, conducts people, by twos and threes, to the parlor floor above, where everyone is offered a glass of whiskey, sherry, or cider.
A Christmas tree glows in one room at the rear, but the action mostly occurs in a central reception hall, all cream-colored plaster detailing and Doric columns. One wall is mirrored, affording some guests a look at incidents that happen upon a curving staircase. The Morkans’ glowing niece Mary Jane (Kimberly Doreen Burns) plays the piano while Miss Daly (Heather Martin Bixler) expertly obliges on the violin. The music they make is sweet and a bit wistful.
Furniture is scarce, so most viewers stand against the walls or gather in clusters at either end of the parlor to observe the proceedings. And so Joyce’s story ensues as Gabriel (Rufus Collins) and his wife Gretta (Melissa Gilbert) join the generally convivial group talking of old times and broaching current issues.
Peppery old Aunt Kate (Patricia Kilgarriff) and her still-girlish sister Julia (Patti Perkins) interact with others that include Mr. Brown (Peter Cormican), a florid gentleman; Mr. D’Arcy (Robert Mack), an opera tenor; Molly Ivors (Aedín Moloney), a feisty Irish nationalist; and Mrs. Malins (Terry Donnelly), a long-suffering neighbor whose alcoholic son Freddy (Ciarán Byrne) arrives rather worse for wine.
Eventually all repair into an adjacent wood-paneled room for dinner. Guests sit refectory style at long tables that surround a central table where the characters dine. The menu: Turkey and beef tenderloin, accompanied by mashed potatoes, green beans, and fancy grapes. Dessert is bread pudding with vanilla sauce. Red or white wine. Tasty food it is, too, nicely served on old-fashioned china. Joyce’s story continues as Gabriel delivers a lengthy toast honoring his aunts and their hospitality while fondly recalling various friends and relatives who have passed on.
Back in the reception room, port is passed around as Mr. D’Arcy delivers a folk song that causes Gretta to later reveal to her husband a sad tale of a long-lost sweetheart that Gabriel never knew about. This final scene transpires in the hushed intimacy of a bedroom on the third floor.
Ciarán O’Reilly, the director, stages these happenings with an easy flow. Led by Rufus Collins’ genial, mildly melancholy Gabriel, the actors mostly provide natural performances. If an ever-smiling Melissa Gilbert appears a tad self-conscious as Gretta, she summons up some genuine emotion during the closing sequence. The exquisite detail and insightful characterizations embodied by Leon Dobkowski’s period costumes enhance the company’s fine portrayals.
Although The Dead, 1904 cannot completely plumb and express the emotional richness of Joyce’s story, its subtle humor and much of its poignant mood shines through. This Christmastime visit with a group of genteel Dubliners offers a glowing holiday experience that its viewers will always fondly remember.
The Dead, 1904 opened November 29, 2018, at the Irish Repertory Theatre and runs through January 13, 2019. Tickets and information: irishrep.org