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Court Theatre’s ‘The Dead’ takes on a celebration filled with music, angst — and ham

Susie McMonagle stars as GrettConroy (with Philip Earl Johnsas Gabriel Conroy) 'James Joyce’s The Dead' Court Theatre.

Susie McMonagle stars as Gretta Conroy (with Philip Earl Johnson as Gabriel Conroy) in "James Joyce’s The Dead" at Court Theatre.

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‘James Joyce’s
The Dead’

◆ Through Dec. 9

◆ Court Theatre,
5535 S. Ellis

◆ Tickets, $45-$65

◆ (773) 753-4472;

Updated: November 16, 2012 7:38AM

Yes, Charles Dickens wrote winningly about the Christmas turkey that a “reborn” Ebenezer Scrooge sent to the family of his long-abused and impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit. But the prize for most vivid description of a holiday meal surely goes to James Joyce.

Just consider the catalogue of dishes served at the Feast of the Epiphany celebration held annually at the Dublin home of the elderly, genteel Morkan sisters. The party is at the center of “The Dead,” the haunting tale of love and loss in “The Dubliners,” Joyce’s masterly 1914 short-story collection. The story also is the source of “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’,” the play with music that opens this weekend at Court Theater.

“A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table, and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin, and beside this was a round of spiced beef,” wrote Joyce. “Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers, and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks.”

It has been 10 years since “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’” — with music by Shaun Davey, and a book and lyrics by Richard Nelson — first cast its unique spell on Chicago audiences. Director Charles Newell, working with musical director Doug Peck, is bringing back what he describes as “a freshly reimagined” production.

“We did it first in 2002, then revived it the following year, which marked the first time I worked with Doug,” said Newell. “Since then we’ve had great collaborations, especially on ‘Porgy and Bess.’ And we decided we could take quite a different approach to ‘The Dead’ now.”

Much of that new approach has to do with the way the music-making is integrated into the storytelling. It is a natural outgrowth of the fact that one of the elderly Morkan sisters is a soprano and choir leader, the other is a pianist and teacher, and students from the local music school also are at the party, where everyone engages in singing and dancing. (The Morkans are played by Mary Ernster and Anne Gunn.)

“We had an incredibly long audition process,” Newell confessed. “But now, instead of having a separate music section onstage, the characters create their own music, playing violin, guitar, cello and flute, with Doug on piano. And I think there is a greater sense of authenticity.”

“This is really not a ‘revival,’ ” Newell said. “We have a new design team, a new cast, and I think we have gone deeper on an emotional level. The show is grittier, earthier, less pretty and sentimental. It’s more hardcore Irish working class, and truer to Joyce’s story.”

The core of that story involves a subtle but shattering shift in the relationship between the Morkan sisters’ nephew, Gabriel Conroy (played by Philip Earl Johnson), and his wife, Gretta (Susie McMonagle), who, on the evening of the Epiphany celebration, unexpectedly tells her husband about a great love affair from her youth.

McMonagle, the veteran Chicago actress-singer who has spent a good part of her career in the national tours of such musicals as “Billy Elliot,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Les Miserables,” is thrilled about getting her first chance to sing the music of her roots on stage.

“I’m very Irish, and I have wonderful memories of holidays spent in Pennsylvania visiting my grandparents,” said McMonagle. “Their house had a sunken living room, and I remember going up a few steps to the dining area which was like a stage, where my grandmother would play piano, my grandfather would tell bad jokes, and each kid would perform something.”

Asked if a particular passage in the show helped unlock its meaning, McMonagle said: “It’s actually something Gabriel says: ‘The world, I’ve come to think, is like the surface of a frozen lake. We walk along, we slip, we try to keep our balance and not to fall. One day there’s a crack, and so we learn that underneath us is an unimaginable depth.’ ”

“It’s about how something long hidden can come to the surface and be so life-altering,” said McMonagle. “It’s about how Gretta turns to her husband for help and in the process breaks his heart.”

Actress Rebecca Finnegan (whose recent riveting turns have included the wife-mother in Porchlight Music Theatre’s “A Catered Affair,” and the nutcase Sara Jane Moore in a terrific one-night-only Chicago Humanities Festival production of “Assassins”) plays a smaller role in the show, but a memorable one as Mrs. Malins, mother of the ever-besotted and embarrassing Freddy.

“Mrs. Malins is a widow who is shuttled back and forth between her daughter and her alcoholic son, and I am familiar with alcoholics,” said Finnegan. “But it’s the folk music in this show, with its connections to blue grass and Appalachia, that really excites me. I’ve even gotten to learn how to play the bodhran, the Irish drum, which has such a wild, tribal sound — though I’m pretty terrible at it. And rather than singing solo I get to just join in on all the great Irish songs.”

“This is such a sad, beautiful play,” said Finnegan. “And the sadness is no one’s fault. There is no one to blame. It’s just life.”

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