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Pictured: Annabel Armour and Bryce Gangel. Photo by Michael Courier.
By Conor McShane
James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of those works of art that seems to be both revered and feared in equal measure. A 700-plus page document of a single day in the lives of three Dubliners, it is often heralded as one of the most important novels in the English language and just as often approached with trepidation, the kind of book one often feels they should read rather than wants to read. For the characters of Steven Dietz’s BLOOMSDAY, currently in its Chicago premiere with Remy Bumppo Theatre, the novel acts as a bridge between the past and present, between what could have been and what is.
I personally have not read Ulysses, so I’m not sure if familiarity with the work would lead to a deeper appreciation of Dietz’s play, but thankfully it stands enough on its own for the uninitiated to enjoy. Much like the novel, it takes place over a single day; or rather, two separate single days spread 35 years apart.
It’s hard to write about the plot without giving away its main narrative conceit, but Dietz doesn’t really keep the truth a secret for very long. Robert (Shawn Douglass), a 50-something academic, has made a career teaching Joyce’s novel, which he has, nevertheless, come to loathe over the years. He has returned to Dublin for the first time in 35 years, where he had a brief but meaningful encounter with Caithleen (Bryce Gangel), a young woman leading a Joyce-themed walking tour. It’s clear from the start he has regrets about how their time together ended, and blames himself for letting her slip through his fingers. Strangely enough, Robert can not only see the younger Caithleen, he can also talk to her, as well as to his 20-year-old self (Jack DeCesare). Robert’s not the only one who can see into the past; the older Cait (Annabel Armour) also seems to have that ability, as well as her own regrets about that fateful day.
Dietz doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining his conceit, but it’s clear that he’s more interested in using it as a device to explore themes of loss, regret, and unfulfilled lives rather than as a sci-fi hook. We’re told early on that “time is a chord,” where past, present, and future ring together, rather than a sequential series of events. While the actual mechanics don’t matter all that much, the slippery rules do cause a bit of confusion, particularly as we’re told women have this ability more than men, or are at least more able to recognize it when they see it. If you’re able to put such concerns aside, it acts as a potent metaphor for the way we often serve as our own ghosts, our actions haunting us long after they occur. We all have moments in our lives we wish we could revisit, and many of us would like to know where we end up, but Dietz seems to suggest that having this ability ultimately wouldn’t change much.
The four-person cast, directed with grace and sensitivity by J.R. Sullivan, all give excellent performances, even when the connections between younger and older selves don’t always cohere. Armour, in a wise and funny turn as the elder Cait, is wonderful, as is Gangel as her younger, more neurotic counterpart. The evolution from DeCesare’s Robbie to Douglass’s Robert feels a bit less organic, but DeCesare sells the younger’s mix of cockiness and vulnerability and Douglass imbues his elder with a palpable sense of regret. They are aided by Jack Magaw’s spare but effective set, Claire Chrzan’s lights, and Yeaji Kim’s projections, which work together to underscore the play’s magical realist feel, moving us from past to present and back again.
We probably all have something in our lives that we wish could have worked out differently. But even for the time-shifting characters of BLOOMSDAY, who may be able to talk to and even counsel their past selves, changing the outcome just isn’t possible. Better, then, to enjoy the time we do get, let go of the regrets that trap us in the past, and help the person we used to be settle into memory. Cait tells us where she’s “placed” the loved ones she’s lost, giving them a comfortable home in her heart where they can remain forever. We’d all do well to heed her advice, both for those gone from the earth, or from our lives.
BLOOMSDAY runs through June 22. For more information visit remybumppo.org.