Burning Coal Theatre Company will stage the North Carolina premiere of the Irish musical James Joyce's "The Dead" — Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey's sprightly adaptation of, perhaps, the most famous short story by the controversial expatriate Irish novelist and 20th century literary giant — Oct. 7-24 in The Kennedy Theatre at the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, NC. Most famous for the R-rated interior monologues of his revolutionary stream-of-consciousness novels Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (1882-1941) included "The Dead" in Dubliners (1914), a more conventional but still distinctly Joycean collection of short stories with an Irish background.
New York-based director Rebecca Holderness, the creative genius behind many of Burning Coal's triumphs to date, such as Love's Labours Lost, Einstein's Dreams, and Travesties, will stage this unforgettable story about the uproar that ensues when a stranger crashes the annual Christmas party hosted by three Dublin spinsters for their family and friends.
The show's all-star cast includes Monique Argent of New York City; Debra Gillingham of Wilmington, NC; Quinn Hawkesworth of Abingdon, VA; Stephen LeTrent of Thomasville, NC; Jim Moscater of Greensboro, NC; Sarah Ray of Goldsboro, NC; and Triangle actors Ian Finley, Lynne Marie Guglielmi, David Henderson, Kathryn Jenkins-Smith, Kevin Lawrence, Sheri Masters, Jan Daub Morgan, Greg Paul, Kendall Rileigh, Deb Royals, and Gina Winter. Argent, Lawrence, and Morgan will double as musicians.
"When [Burning Coal artistic director] Jerry Davis at Burning Coal called and told me he wanted me to direct a musical," says Rebecca Holderness, "I said, 'Ok, which?' He said, James Joyce's 'The Dead'.... I immediately said, 'Sure.' We have a really good relationship in that way. He suggests things for me that he thinks will fit my aesthetic vision and also, I think, push me a bit, and I trust that."
She adds, "This is my first connection to James Joyce's 'The Dead' as a theater piece. Of course, I am familiar with the Joyce short story and the film that John Huston made in 1986, I believe. His last film, ironically. It's beautiful, but a bit somber and dark. We are really kicking up our heels with this one, which is, I honestly think, more in the spirit of Joyce, no?"
Besides director Rebecca Holderness, the show's production team includes choreographer Meighan Carpenter of the Raleigh School of Irish Dance; musical director Harrison Fisher of Raleigh; South Africa-born set designer Morag Charlton of Raleigh; lighting designer Matthew Adelson of Brooklyn, NY; costume designer Carson Mather of Raleigh; vocal coach Roger Smart of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; technical director Jennifer Becker of Raleigh; and assistant director Terry Milner of Chapel Hill.
"I perceive the piece as joyful and soulful, sensual and committed to family and history," says Rebecca Holderness. "All these things are important in my own life. I am an American of Irish descent and eat many meals at my family table in Nashville on chairs brought from Ireland in the early 19th century. So, I relate in that way. I find the central theme of facing change poignant and immediate in a post 9/11 world. And who wouldn't like sitting in a room full of dancing and singing. That's what I like best."
Holderness says the show's plot is simple. "[James Joyce's 'The Dead'] is about three spinster ladies (played by Quinn Hawkesworth, Jan Daub Morgan, and Gina Winter) in Dublin in 1904. Every year, around Christmas, they throw a big party in their Dublin flat. Friends, family, neighbors — it's a big social event.
"The sort of 'center' of the extended family is Gabriel and Gretta Conroy (David Henderson and Debra Gillingham)," claims Holderness. "At the Christmas party, songs are sung, dances danced, toasts are made, stories are told, gossip and insinuation is thrown around the room. And then a young music student (Stephen LeTrent) appears. His name is Michael. He shakes up Gretta in a way that is only noticed by her husband."
Holderness adds, "Later that night, Gabriel confronts her. The story she tells him is about another 'Michael' from a quarter century before. And that's pretty much it. The short story is so compact, so specific and so precise. It makes a great musical, I think. All too often today's musicals want to put too much material and too little substance on the stage."
Rebecca Holderness is an imaginative, resourceful director whose productions have earned fulsome praise in New York as well as the Triangle. She says staging James Joyce's "The Dead" will be a creative challenge.
"There's a split in the play," Holderness explains. "It has to do with the way the play is written. I think the split is intentional on the part of the playwrights. The play is at once realistic and not realistic. This reflects the inner and outer experience that we all have. And I think that choice is perfectly in tune with Joyce's work. So, the challenge is to bring the two elements into harmony, as in a song. Something I think we are doing quite well."
Somewhat mysteriously, Holderness says the show's set will be "ice and fire," its lighting will be "icy and amber," and its costumes will be "muted, like in a daguerreotype, mostly shades of black and white, [and] true to the 19th century period."
She adds, "There are 18 wonderful actors, singers, musicians, and dancers in this production; and I love working with every one of them. I'm so pleased I've been introduced to the great work of Quinn Hawkesworth — she is so simple and direct and so full of humor in a very subtle way. Also, Jan Morgan is blowing me away with her energy and amazing comic ability. Deb Royals is hot, Debra Gillingham a pro. And working with [actor] David Henderson, [Burning Coal artistic director] Jerome Davis, and [set designer] Morag Charlton is always worth the trip to Raleigh."
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents James Joyce's "The Dead" Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 7-9, 14-16, and 21-23, at 7:45 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 10, 17, and 24, at 2 p.m. in The Kennedy Theatre at the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active military-personnel and $10 for groups of 10 or more), except Oct. 10 pay-what-you-can performance. 919/834-4001 or http://www.burningcoal.org/tickets%20submit.htm. Note: The Oct. 9 performance will be audio described for the hearing impaired. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. Internet Movie Database (1987 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092843/. James Joyce Centre: http://www.jamesjoyce.ie/.