The Dead


Based on a short story by James Joycecourt theatre

Book by Richard Nelson

Music by Shaun Davey

Lyrics conceived and adapted by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey

Directed by Charles Newell

Music Direction by Doug Peck

Choreographed by Kate Spelman

Heartfelt holiday show sparkles with warmth, charm and genuine spirit

Court Theatre returns after  nearly ten years to remount their successful holiday show based on a James Joyce short story- The Dead.  As conceived and written by Richard Nelson with music by Shaun Davey, The Dead is a special, gentle and wholesome holiday musical. This time around, director Charles Newell and music director have a new cast that features an array of actors who can sing with several actor/musician to give the production an intimate realistic flavor.

court theatre

It is 1904 and the Irish gentry have gathered  in a snowy January to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany at the sisters Morkan house. With loads of Irish folk songs (here featuring both traditional and new compositions based on Joyce poems), the clan gathers for food, spirits and genuine cheer. Presented as an ensemble piece , the cast of 13 actors with Doug Peck on the piano, The Dead  is a fine blend of diagetic songs ( the singers aware that they are singing0 and presentational songs (characters  expressing emotion musically, but not aware they are singing). This blend seamlessly carries us totally into their world as we sit and share the spirit of  fellowship, good drink and holiday cheer. Memories are heightened, The Dead are revived and old loves are rekindled. Traditions of family and country are extolled and the richness music in the lives of this group are played out in 14 original Irish folk tunes that both speak to the person singing and to the Irish mentality.

The Dead, part of James Joyce’s Dubliners, has Gabriel Conroy (Philip Earl Johnson), a university professor, recalling the annual Epiphany party as the Morkans’ house in Dublin. Snow is falling – a rare event in Ireland but good cheer prevails. Aging Aunt Julia (Mary Ernster) and her sister Aunt Kate (Anne Gunn) host the annual affair with help from Mary Jane Morkan (Regina Leslie on violin). The three ladies are quite musical throughout their lives. therefore songs always prevail at their gatherings. Gretta Conroy (Susie McMonagle), Gabriel’s wife accompanies him.

court theatre

Lily (Suzanne Gillen on the flute), the Morkans’ maid with Mr. Brown (Steve Tomlitz on cello) a family friend plus Michael (Jim DeSelm on guitar), one of Mery Jane’s students all attend the gathering. The outspoken Molly Ivors (Lara Fillip) Gabriel’s colleague is present as is Rita (Rachel Klippel) Aunt Julia’s student. They are joined by Bartell D’Arcy(J. Michael Finley), an opera singer. The sour family friend, Mrs. Malins (Rebecca Finnegan) awaits the entrance of her drink-too-much son, Freddy Malins (Rob Lindley).

Lively conversation, food and drink spark the outbreak of songs as the ladies, the men and the students each get their songs sung in celebration of  life, of tradition, and of nostalgic memories. Irish politics and memories of past great singers are debated as the haunting ever-present effects of the dead are dramatized. The varied tunes underscore the story. When Freddy emotionally evokes his angst in the powerful “Wake the Dead” the group reacts in a frenzy. The frailty of life is seen in the deterioration of the aging Aunt Julia. A past love is revealed by Susie McMonagle as she sings “Michael Furey.” The joyous spirit of living  is balance with the richness of the past. This beautiful show will get you reliving your past as you celebrate living with this Irish clan. Let the charm of Philip Earl Johnson together with the wholesomeness of Mary Ernster and the flamboyance of Rob Lindley bring you into the celebration of life with reverence to the dead. This show will make you feel good. It is a flawless work of theatrical art. Don’t miss it.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: November17, 2012

For more info checkout The Dead page at

Jeff Recommended

At Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL, call 773-753-4472,, tickets $45 – $65, Wednesdays & Thursdays  at 7:30, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 pm, running time is 1 hour 45 minutes without intermission, through December 8, 2012

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