Ten miles out on a frozen lake is no time to learn that you can no longer rely on the equipment that brought you there–or the person you came out there with. For this excellent reason, if you plan to see Burning Coal Theatre’s production of The Dead–and I strongly think you should–my best advice to you is this: Bundle up. It’s a long walk home, alone.

For even at the height of the Misses Morkans’ lively Christmas Party, the early centerpiece of the James Joyce short story on which this work is based, the chill is never far away. We catch it from the opening moments in which the narrator, Gabriel Conroy, firmly frames his story as a memory, one being related some time after the events have taken place.

So no, we shouldn’t fully trust the intoxicating whirl, the noble oratory or the sentimental Irish songs rendered so vividly. In particular we shouldn’t trust the warmth, shared among lovers, friends, family members, husbands and wives.

The reason? The party’s long been over by the time Gabriel begins his tale. And while he’s more than willing to focus on all matters then and there, he is much less willing to divulge our present location.

Those familiar with the source material to Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey’s 1999 speculative music theater work may have already detected in the paragraphs above some schisms between their adapted plot and the one contained in the closing chapter of Joyce’s Dubliners. Joyce purists may take exception at a death foretold in Joyce actually occurring during the course of this work. They–and others–may well object that the play’s most memorable line, which likens the world to a frozen lake, repeated at the start and the end, isn’t even from the Joyce short story in question.

But even non-purists are likely to question the ending of Nelson and Davey’s adaptation, and director Rebecca Holderness’ vision of it in this production.

As the show continues, our narrator gradually reveals himself to be less and less sympathetic, and less and less reliable: a husband who apparently views all surprises from his wife with genuine alarm. The depth of this brittleness and the cracks in its surface extend further as the evening continues, as the degree of the man’s estrangement from wife, from friends and acquaintances–ultimately, from the living in toto–become more apparent.

But at the end, Joyce’s text mentions the “generous tears” of a man about to start his own enigmatic journey westward, a man who has finally realized he has never loved a woman the way a young boy once loved his wife.

Contrast that, if you will, with the steely bitterness in the play’s final song, “The Living and the Dead.” At the end of the play, Gabriel still seems petulant–and nothing more–that his wife ever loved or was loved by another boy in her youth. No redemption, realization or change occurs onstage–in decided difference to the end of Joyce’s story.

Should audiences avoid it? Not at all–particularly with the accomplishment in ensemble acting, music and design on display. The denizens of the party at the center of act one are notable. Quinn Hawkesworth and Jan Doub Morgan give indelible performances as the party’s hosts, Julia and Mary Kate Morken. Deb Royals is in fine form as the uppity Molly Ivors. Kathryn Jenkins Smith’s interplay with Ian Finley is memorable as a longsuffering Mother Malins continually upbraids her reprobate son, Freddy. As our narrator, Gabriel, David Henderson turns warmth to a chill on a dime; Debra Gillingham gives a finely nuanced performance as his wife.

As the dark-eyed servant Lily, Kendall Rileigh doubles as a musician in this production, along with music director Harrison Fisher, Kevin Lawrence on cello, Monique Argent and Sarah Ray. They, with the other members of the ensemble, give a palpable warmth and a compelling reality to a collection of ghosts–memories that ultimately no longer warm the one remembering them.

So see it. But be prepared.

And bundle up.

One month and counting: Choreo Collective is soliciting short films–with or without a dance-related theme–from local filmmakers for Choreo Shorts, their third annual late-night concert of film, live music and dance at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Theater on Jan. 22, 2005. Entries must run eight minutes or less and be submitted on VHS or DVD. Aside from that, “variety is sought, theme is open, so anything goes,” according to the Web site. Submission deadline: Nov. 12. See www.choreocollective.org/shorts.htm for full details.