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Not Quite Dead, But Cold

Music gets in the way of the emotion in the Barksdale’s holiday show.

It’s not easy to diagnose the reasons for the emotional deficit. Some of the accents wander around the Irish countryside, often returning to this side of the Atlantic altogether. And the sound amplification system makes it difficult to connect voice to actor, detracting from the intimacy of the setting. But these are only small criticisms that have nothing to do with a more fundamental problem. Because of the distractions, many of them musical, we never get a chance to invest ourselves in the Conroy marriage. The sadness of the final scene is more intellectual than emotional.

If you ignore that people break into song every few minutes, Richard Nelson’s book is reasonably faithful to the story. In 1904 Dublin, a group of friends and family gather at Christmastime. Struck by the resemblance between a young music student (Chase Tyler Kniffen) and someone she used to know, Gretta (Kelly Kennedy) withdraws into herself. Attuned to the disruption in his wife’s mood but uncertain of the cause, Gabriel (Jack Parrish) becomes more unsettled as the evening goes on.

The cast includes some of the finest actors in Richmond. Parrish lends a weighty presence to the festivities. The story is written from Gabriel’s point of view, and in this adaptation, Parrish ably narrates Gabriel’s innermost thoughts to the audience.

Kelly Kennedy is ideal for the role of Gretta Conroy. Her performance of “Goldenhair” is the most touching moment in the show. “Arise, my beautiful one. Arise, Arise,” she sings with extreme delicacy. And though she is a more gifted vocalist than Parrish, she generously does nothing to accentuate the mismatch during their duets.

Suzanne Pollard returns to the Richmond stage with a poignant performance as Aunt Julia. It’s not an easy assignment because her character once had a beautiful singing voice that has long since faltered. Pollard pulls it off with considerable charm. She also leads Aunt Kate (Jolene Carroll) and Mary Jane (Debra Wagoner) in a semirisqué ditty that includes the line, “… Rome is in a whirl because we’re naughty girls.”

Director Steve Perigard doesn’t flinch from the script’s intrinsic problems. He slows down the pace from time to time so that we can see Gretta glancing at the boy who triggered all of this turmoil. Elizabeth Weiss Hopper’s period costumes are absolutely perfect. Lynne M. Hartman does a masterful job of lighting the final scene. Kennedy (who also did the choreography) is a shivering bundle of subtext. And Parrish bravely attempts to explore the complex layers of vulnerability that make Gabriel’s inner thoughts so moving.

I admire the Barksdale for tackling such an ambitious script. There’s no pleasure in saying the show is not so affecting. But there’s also no getting around a simple truth. In the dark of night, a snowfall upon a lonely churchyard is almost never accompanied by Broadway show tunes. S

The Barksdale Theatre’s production of “James Joyce’s The Dead” continues through Jan. 11 at 1601 Willow Lawn Drive. Tickets cost $34 and can be purchased by calling 282-2620.

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