It’s early June in Dublin—almost Bloomsday. The time is today and 35 years ago. But whatever year it is, Bloomsday, celebrated on June 16, is a reason to lift a pint and appreciate the life and writing of James Joyce. Steven Dietz’ memory play, directed by J.R. Sullivan, and now being staged by Remy Bumppo Theatre, is a captivating story of the past and/or the future. In Bloomsday, we meet two couples: Caithleen (Bryce Gangel) and Robbie (Jack DeCesare) who meet and almost love when they’re 20. And their older counterparts, Robert (Shawn Douglass) and Cait (Annabel Armour), who return today, dressed for Bloomsday, and view the events of their past over pints of regret.
Time and place are important in Bloomsday, but both are slippery in Dietz’s telling. Time shifts back and forth because “Time is not a series of neat single notes called the present–one played after another…. Time is a chord: many notes, past-present-future, all real, all alive, and all played at once.” Perhaps because of this, “people are not staying their right ages around me,” Cait laments later.
Caithleen leads a tour of Dublin, taking the route followed by Leopold Bloom in the eponymous Bloomsday, the day on which Joyce’s novel Ulysses takes place in 1904, the date of Joyce’s first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle. It’s named after Joyce’s protagonist Leopold Bloom. (Regular commemorations of Bloomsday take place in Chicago and all over the world.)
Caithleen has a tour group of mostly bored international tourists, who gradually drift away from her impassioned tour of Joyce’s Dublin. All except Robbie, an American from the Seattle area who never heard ofUlysses or Bloomsday, but is immediately charmed by Caithleen. They stop at a shop where Bloom bought a bar of lemon soap for Molly and continue to Davy Byrne’s pub for a tiny sandwich. Later they escape the rain and talk over a pint at McDaid’s pub.
The older Robert, as a literature professor, has been living with Joyce’s Ulysses for years. “I teach that book,” he says, “a book that he titled with typical hubris and pretension …. The most under-read and over-praised piece of doggerel ever hemorrhaged on to the world! Don’t take my word for it…. Ask half the critics and every college sophomore on earth.”
Robert talks about a recent party at home that friends planned to celebrate his birthday. It was a very sweet, very nice, very fun event in my honor, he says, but that night I knew “down deep, at the center of me, I am made of something cold—and it started here—in Dublin—with her.” Robert fears that the meeting of today’s Robbie and today’s Caithleen will have the same result—because of that coldness and inability to grab love when it’s within your grasp, the quality that he and his younger self share.
Older Cait has regrets too. She returns and meets Caithleen; their scene together on a bench on St. Stephen’s Green is one of the highlights of Bloomsday. After Cait tells stories about the fate of people Caithleen knows, she says to her younger self, “for the love of Mike I don’t care what anybody says it’d be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it. You wouldn’t see women going and killing one another and slaughtering. When do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do, or gambling every penny they have? Because as a woman, whatever she does, she knows where to stop ….”
Both Robert and Cait remember what happened 35 years ago and sometimes foretell future events for Robbie and Caithleen. You can decide whether Robbie and Caithleen are a young couple in today’s world or a reincarnation of Robert and Cait from 35 years ago. Given the time switching and foretelling, I think we have to believe the latter. And I believe that’s the playwright’s intentions, given the way he introduces the two couples in his script.
Jack Magaw’s scenic design features photographic projections by Yeaji Kim of changing Dublin scenes, reflecting Caithleen’s tour route. Lighting is by Claire Chrzan and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Costumes are by Mieka van der Ploeg.
Steven Dietz proves himself a master of moods and milieus with this play. He captures the Dublin spirit in Cait and Caithleen and the poetry of Joyce in the dialogue (just as he captured the Beat spirit in Mad Beat Hip & Gone, now on stage by Promethean Theatre Ensemble at the Edge Off Broadway). Bloomsday, his 2015 play, is one of his 38 original plays and another dozen adaptations.
Remy Bumppo’s Bloomsday runs two hours with an intermission and continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 22. Tickets are $37.75 to $57.75 for performances Thursday-Sunday.