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BWW Reviews: Quotidian's JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD – Charming, Intimate Theatrical Production

I have a special fondness for any theatre company that dares to produce an intimate musical/ 'play with music' that's rarely done and does it very well.  I fell in love with the music Shaun Davey composed for James Joyce's The Dead several years ago when I first heard the exquisite "Adieu to Ballyshannon" done on a favorite Broadway actress' solo album and sought out the other songs – with lyrics conceived and adapted by book writer Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey – that comprise the Irish folk music-infused score.  Quotidian Theatre Company's current production of this hidden gem has a cast that does considerable justice to the score and mostly brings their acting 'A-Game' to portray the intimate setting of an early 20th century Christmas party in Dublin under the commendable direction of Jack Sbarbori.  

The Tony Award-nominated James Joyce's The Dead, based on James Joyce's short story of the same name, enjoyed a very short run on Broadway following a production at Playwrights Horizons Off-Broadway.  The story told is simple at first glance, but complexities lie beneath the surface as is the case with many of Joyce's works.  Here, the Morkan's have invited family and friends to their annual Christmas party.  As they celebrate the season with their loved ones and friends by singing songs and sharing tales, guests remember their pasts, reflect on their futures, and two guests in particular (husband and wife Gabriel and Gretta Conroy) realize they don't know each other as well as they thought.  As the rifts in the Conroy marriage are exposed at the party, questions emerge about the state of the relationship both past and present.  Nelson's Tony Award-winning book explores this situation in a refined, but understatEd Manner.

Several members of the large cast of have standout moments.  Janice Hall, as the conflicted Gretta Conroy, combines stellar singing technique with just as strong song interpretation skill.  Her nuanced portrayal of Ms. Conroy is particularly appreciated.  Although Steve Beall is not as strong of a singer as Hall, he brings considerable emotion to the aforementioned "Adieu to Ballyshannon" as well as the couple's other duet, "Goldenhair."  A stellar acting moment also comes as his character, Gabriel Conroy, realizes that his wife still has feelings for a man that she lost as a young woman. 

Vanessa Kinzey is also appropriately spunky as the youngest of the Morkan's (Mary Jane) and brings some much needed liveliness to the evening.  Jane Squier Bruns is heartbreaking as the elderly Aunt Julia Morkan.  She delivers "When Lovely Lady Stoops to Folly" with tender pain and one can feel her sadness as she succumbs to old age.  Malinda Markland (Lily) also brings some delightful comedic moments to her small role and makes the most of her brief moments onstage.

Although there are moments in the production that left me slightly baffled (for example, an actor delivering his lines/song with his back to the audience), Sbarbori has done well to maintain the intimate nature of this piece while making it accessible to audience members more accustomed to traditional musicals.  A stellar group of musicians on piano (musical director Valerie A. Higgs), button accordion (Peter Price), violin (Sarah Foard), cello (Tom Zebovitz), and flute (Eric Abalahin) seated, interestingly enough, on stage and (at times) taking part in the action, highlight Davey's strong music.  At times their sound drowns out the actors (particularly in the first few moments of the play), but this situation improves as the play goes on.   The set design (Jack Sbarbori) and the costumes (Stephanie Mumford) are mood-appropriate and further establish time/place.  Although the choreography (Kate Bole, Kara Haslbeck, Catherine Marafino) is nothing to write home about, it does fit the setting and is well-executed by the cast. 

Overall, I'd recommend this production.   Strong acting, strong singing, and a delicate treatment of the interesting material make this one to see.

Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

Quotidian Theatre Company's James Joyce's The Dead plays at The Writer's Center – 4508 Walsh Street in Bethesda, MD – through December 16, 2012.   To reserve tickets, call the reservation line (301-816-1023) or send an email to

Photo Credit: Audrey Cefaly. 

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