As you approach the stairs leading up to the immersive production of The Dead, 1904 -- directed by Ciaran O'Reilly at the American Irish Historical Society -- you're met by Lily, the house-maid, suitably "run off her feet," as in the opening words of James Joyce's story "The Dead" (which this production's script by Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz follows faithfully).
Lily ushers you upstairs and hands you off to one of the elderly Morkan sisters - your hostesses along with their niece Mary Jane. In a room decked out in pine and ribbons, complete with a Christmas tree and a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the chandelier, it's as if you've stepped back in time to a lavish turn-of-the-century Christmas party. That, and the chance to inhabit (however briefly) Joyce's rich world, are the two best aspects of The Dead, 1904.
After a bit of music and milling about, the other guests begin to arrive. There's the tame Mr. Brown, the fiery Molly Ivors, the outrageously drunk Freddy Malins, the tenor Bartell D'Arcy, and Mary Jane's pupil Miss Daly, who provides violin music. Finally, there's the Morkan sisters' favorite nephew: Gabriel Conroy (Rufus Collins) accompanied by his wife Gretta (Melissa Gilbert).
As these guests interact with each other and the hostesses, the audience sits or stands around, privy to each conversation. Eventually the party moves into the dining room to enjoy an excellent holiday dinner (Great Performances caters), a toast by Gabriel, and a song by Mary Jane.
Later in the evening, there's a humorous monologue by Gabriel which, as wonderfully delivered by Rufus Collins, stands out as one of the evening's highlights, then a wistful song by D'Arcy which casts Gretta into a pensive state. After the other guests leave and the hostesses retire to bed, Gabriel and Gretta make their way upstairs to their room for the night; and on a hint from Lily, the audience follows.
With the other characters gone, the lights dimmed, and the fourth wall apparently replaced, the mood is set for the final, stripped-down scene of the drama. Gretta tells Gabriel of her first love: a boy in the country who died at 17, evidently for love of her. Though Melissa Gilbert's Gretta feels a bit high-strung, her loud emotion is the perfect counterpart to Collins' understated Gabriel: who now delivers The Dead's closing paragraphs in a monologue taken almost verbatim from the text.
Since most people don't think the way James Joyce writes, that monologue feels slightly stiff at times. But in view of Joyce's gorgeous writing, it's a concession I'm willing to make. And when we reach that final line which is possibly one of the most perfect endings ever written - with the snow coming down outside (via projected lights on the windowpanes) - there is a quiet sense of wonder not unlike the spell cast by Joyce's final line. We've moved through the glittering, festive mansion and come at last to that somber but not altogether joyless region that follows: where dwell "the dead."