This is no small task, for Joyce's story is even more interior than his more stylistically difficult Ulysses. Joyce provides little dialogue; much of the story consists of observation and an account of the tumultuous inner state of the outwardly circumspect central character, Gabriel Conroy.
Meier has scattered lines of narrative among the 17 actors, who tell the story as much as show the action. There's no other good way around this project, for "action" is not the point of The Dead.
It's early January in Dublin, during the first decade of the 20th century. The elderly Misses Morkan, Kate and Julia, are throwing their annual dance and dinner party. At length, Gabriel Conroy arrives with his beloved wife, Gretta. Gabriel's task each year is to deliver a speech at dinner, and he frets that some of his references may be over the heads of his audience. Outwardly a bit aloof, but intelligent and well-liked, Gabriel arrives full of doubts that intensify as the evening progresses.
A young servant rebuffs Gabriel's innocent question about her love life with such disillusion that Gabriel is thrown off balance. Later, while dancing with a flirtatiously bantering friend, Molly Ivors, he is pulled against his will into a conversation about Irish nationalism, in which he has no interest but which matters greatly to Miss Ivors. When she leaves the party before dinner, he wonders if he has caused her departure.
Dinner seems to go well, and Gabriel delivers his little speech, in which he acknowledges the pull of the past but insists that we should not brood about our memories, for our real business is the present, our "living duties and living affections."
After the party, Gabriel's sole thought is of getting his wife into bed, and during the carriage ride to their hotel, he reflects on the intimate, "secret" elements of their early years together, and imagines that she is doing the same. Eventually, though, Gretta admits that a sad ballad sung at the party has turned her thoughts to a boy named Michael Furey, who loved her many years before and died in his youth; he was already seriously ill, but she believes he died at the prospect of her departure from their village.
Now Gabriel's disillusionment, which began during his exchange with the young servant, is complete and personal. He at last realizes what he lacks: the political passion of Molly Ivors, the romantic passion of the dead Michael Furey, the passion of memory of his wife. His own life is about control, gentle control though it may be ... mastery either of himself, of some intellectual subject or task, or of his wife. Like his aunts, the Misses Morkan, he will ultimately dodder off to death, rather than leaving the world in a state of passion, as did Michael Furey. He knows at last that, contrary to his dinner speech, the dead past and the living present cannot be separated.
If I have just outlined every important thing that happens (and every spoiler) in The Dead, it's because the plot is less important than the manner in which Joyce's themes are conveyed. Meier has retained almost every word from the short story, save for some physical descriptions, and interpolated just a bit of extra text. The most prominent addition isn't textual at all; it's music. The local Irish band Round the House and other musicians add tremendously to this production without ever taking a glitzy Riverdance approach.
J. Andrew McGrath may be more trim and attractive than Joyce thought Gabriel to be, but he does a superb job of elucidating Gabriel's conflicting emotions. Amy Almquist conveys all of Gretta's sad tenderness, and although the Irish accents are variable, all the other cast members, with Meier's guidance, bring depth to Joyce's sketchy characters.
Some audience members will surely feel that these two unbroken hours pass too slowly. But really, Rogue Theatre's approach is the only way to do full justice to this story on stage. Like the original story, the Rogue production is a work of exquisite, frustrated desire.