Review: Mad Cow Theatre’s ‘James Joyce’s The Dead’

From Mad Cow Theatre’s “James Joyces’ The Dead” — Blake Aburn as Michael, Nicholas Wuehrmann as Gabriel Conroy, Karel Wright as Aunt Kate Morkan, Patti McGuire as Aunt Julia Morkan, musicians Jacquelyn Cunningham, Lindsey Gradwohl, and Philip King with Rachel Jones as Rita in background. Detail of photo by Tom Hurst Photography


A world long gone comes alive with a fresh theatrical form in the Mad Cow Theatre’s delicate and poetic production of “James Joyce’s The Dead.”

And, yes, there is a Christmas theme to it. Based on “The Dead,” the last short story in Mr. Joyce’s celebrated collection called “Dubliners,” a loving family and their friends convene in 1904 at the Misses Morkans’ second floor flat for their annual Christmas celebration complete with song, dance and stories.

The theatrical version, written by Richard Nelson with music by Shaun Davey, is filled with jubilation. Rather than presentational nature of musical theater, the songs and dances are organic to the story and don’t pause for the obligatory audience applause. You are caught up as a viewer of this party.

There are the delightful “Killarney’s Lakes” and “Queen of Our Hearts” – the exuberant “Naughty Girls” and “Wake the Dead.”

As narrator, central character Gabriel Conroy entreats the audience to consider the world as “a surface of a frozen lake…with unimaginable depth below.” Portrayed with a gentle, forlorn kindness by Nicholas Wuehrmann, Gabriel is an angelic soul – our Greek chorus leading us onward.

Nicholas Wuehrmann as Gabriel Conroy in Mad Cow Theatre's "James Joyce's The Dead." Photo by Tom Hurst Photography

Nicholas Wuehrmann as Gabriel Conroy in Mad Cow Theatre’s “James Joyce’s The Dead.” Photo by Tom Hurst Photography

The story first moves slowly, easily, as guests arrive for the big party. People sing, dance, play music and chat. Blake Aburn turns out an affectionate portrayal of Michael, who sings “Kate Kearney.” Cole NeSmith is an engaging and earnest Freddy, who, despite his mother’s worries, is not as “screwed” (drunk) as she expects. The wonderful Karel Wright brings soul to Kate Morkan as she sticks up for her older sister who has been dismissed by the church chorus.

This all seems rather, well, commonplace. But in the hands of director Mark Edward Smith, this marvelous gem quickly catches you in its embrace. This is theater magic – performed without smoke and mirrors, but instead with gentle artistry in tune with the story’s content and style.

Like gossamer Irish lace, a deep melancholy weaves in and out of the storyline. Their beloved matriarch, Aunt Julia (charming Patti McGuire), is not long for this world. So, too, her sisters will follow, as will the rest. Gretta Conroy (portrayed with complexity by Meghan Moroney) mourns over a dead childhood sweetheart, leaving her husband, Gabriel, to despair over the emotional gulf between them.

Music director Philip King brings a spirited authenticity to the stage in both the musicians and singers. Choreographer Sara Catherine Barnes adds good sweep and jolly movement. But the women’s costumes are uneven, with some details not precise enough for an audience so close to the stage.

Scenic designer William Elliott uses muslin to rather shroud the stage, creating a strong thematic statement and a most resonating final moment.

A season where one celebrates a birth may seem an odd time to consider mortality. But there is something so simple and pure in this graceful production — it is the melancholy of joy, which stings us all. The party is ephemeral. Eventually the curtains are pulled back and snow will whiten our own hair.

This is “must-see” live, artful theater. “James Joyce’s The Dead” haunts you and you are the better for it.

Photos by Tom Hurst Photography

SIDE O’ GRITS: “James Joyce’s The Dead” runs through Jan. 4, 2015 at Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., 2nd floor, Orlando. It performs: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Mon. Dec. 15 and 29; 2:30 p.m. Sundays and Wed., Dec. 24 and 31. Tickets are $24.25 to $36.75, handling charges may apply. Call 407-297-8788 or visit