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An Ordinary Tale of Madness

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Dreaming Lucia

Lookingglass Theatre Company

at the Athenaeum Theatre

Faith Healer

TurnAround Theatre

Father, if ever I take a fancy to anybody I swear to you on the head of Jesus that it will not be because I am not fond of you. Do not forget that. I don't really know what I am writing Father....I should like to have a life as quiet as I have now with a garden and perhaps a dog, but nobody is ever contented, isn't that so?"

The words are those of a 27-year-old schizophrenic writing to her father from a private sanatorium. Knowing that is enough to make us feel sorrow for a troubled life lived in alternating states of clarity and confusion. But because the woman is Lucia Anna Joyce, the daughter of James Joyce, we take an extra interest. Lucia's relationship with her father is a fascinating blend of devotion, dependence, and denial; it also has ramifications for some of the seminal works of modern literature.

James Joyce's experiments with stream of consciousness and psychic fragmentation can be seen as reflections of the disorientation of Lucia's mind; one eminent critic has declared that Finnegans Wake "is [Joyce's] anguished response to his daughter's gradual retreat from reality [and] a desperate parody of Lucia's disastrous compulsion." Joyce guiltily felt that "whatever spark of gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia, and has kindled a fire in her brain"; he tried long and hard to minimize her condition as an oddity to be assuaged with a new fur coat or an arranged marriage. His wife Nora ascribed their daughter's illness to Lucia's peripatetic upbringing--Joyce shuttled the family from Italy to Switzerland to France rather than return to his native Ireland--as if his self-imposed cultural exile led to Lucia's psychological one. And the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung went so far as to call Lucia the projection of her father's unconscious psyche, the "femme inspiratrice" whose illness Joyce could not acknowledge lest it force him to confront the psychosis Jung thought evident in Joyce's writing. "You are both going to the bottom of the river," Jung told the author of Ulysses, "but she is falling and you are diving."

The story of James and Lucia Joyce is a whirlpool churning with psychological and artistic currents, rife with dramatic possibilities. Almost none of them, however, are exploited in Dreaming Lucia, Lookingglass Theatre's visually evocative but uninvolving new work. Written by and starring Joy Gregory, who also directs with Laura Eason, this is a production in search of a play--a pretty but apparently pointless piece of theater that left more than one viewer at last week's opening wondering if the second act would prove more substantial. Problem is, there is no second act.

Structured as a flashback, with the middle-aged Lucia recalling her life from her bed in the British mental hospital where she died in 1982, Dreaming Lucia is a series of tableaux--dreamlike, as the title suggests--through which Gregory and Eason attempt to chart Lucia's development from child to young woman and her deterioration from eccentricity to mental disorder. One stage picture after another impresses with its chilly, alien beauty. The multimedia design by Timothy Morrison (set), Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), David Kersnar (lights), Royd Climenhaga (visual projections), and Bruce W. Holland (sound) suggests the gentility of pre-World War I Europe while conveying Lucia's increasingly isolated inner world--a lunar landscape as coolly luminous as the milieu described in Joyce's poem "Simples," in which he honors his young daughter as a sort of moon maiden. Several episodes use silent gestural language to indicate the intuitive, almost secretive link between Joyce and Lucia, as when the doting but distracted father presents the girl with her first grown-up dress.

But Lucia herself remains distant, too enigmatic to sustain our concern. So does Joyce, a stick figure of an aloof artist-daddy as played by Thomas J. Cox. Lucia's mother registers more strongly in Christine Dunford's vigorous, liltingly spoken portrayal; but the play shies away from the murky hostility that informed the women's relationship. (Lucia's institutionalization was finally provoked when she hurled a chair at Nora, an episode whose violence is minimized here in a highly stylized moment in which Gregory swings a surrealistically suspended chair at Dunford.)

In an evening that almost never generates the emotion implicit in its subject, one scene stands out for its understated but moving effect: when the love-struck Lucia welcomes as a gentleman caller Samuel Beckett--her father's acolyte, whose courteous attention Lucia misinterprets as romantic affection. When tall, high-browed Raymond Fox as Beckett shyly informs Gregory's monotonously uptight Lucia that he comes to visit her father rather than her, the sequence has a powerful impact achieved nowhere else in the show; it's a rare example of adult emotion in a play that spends far too much time on Lucia's girlhood, mining easy laughs out of imitations of schoolroom antics.

Even in the scene with Beckett, Gregory suggests little more than the sort of romantic disappointment we've all endured; and in treating Lucia's feelings for her father, the play simply reproduces the common childhood experience of feeling left out of and mystified by adult interactions. Nowhere does Dreaming Lucia stir understanding of the title character's hallucinatory mental disorder; this Lucia is just one more lonely girl, and we're left wondering why we've been asked to spend so much time with her. A hint of an answer may be found in Gregory's precious program notes: "By approaching Joyceana as hagiography and, consequently, Lucia Joyce as an icon, I was freed to do what any worshipper would, that is, project my inner life, my desires, my paralysis, memory, silence, and joy onto her mysterious, submerged image." Instead of Dreaming Lucia we get dreaming Gregory--more Joy than Joyce. And unfortunately, despite the artfulness with which Gregory's dreams have been presented, they're pretty pedestrian.

Like James Joyce, the protagonist of Brian Friel's Faith Healer is an Irishman in voluntary exile; but instead of the rarefied environs of Trieste and Zurich, Frank Hardy travels through the peasant villages of Wales and Scotland. Part mountebank and part miracle worker, Frank can sometimes actually cure the lame and the blind; more often they go away unhealed, for Frank has no control over when his talent flows. His magic derives from something deep inside him, barely understood but more demonic than divine. Accompanied by his self-sacrificing wife Grace and promoter Teddy, Frank is the artist as user and used; his self-destruction is as inevitable as its ruinous effect on the people around him.

The 1979 Faith Healer, a series of interlocking monologues that tellingly confirm or contradict one another, is a virtuosic meditation on the artist's talent as gift and curse. Teddy, a comical cockney veteran of vaudeville, knows Frank's miracles are as much show biz as the old bagpipe-playing dog act he used to manage; Grace, devoted to a man who rarely breaks through his self-absorption to return her attention, resents Frank but thrives on her devotion to him. And Frank himself, who attempts a disastrous Irish homecoming once his despised parents are dead, treads dangerously between self-aggrandizement and self-destruction, "balanced somewhere between the absurd and the momentous."

Impressive just as a feat of memory for the actors--each monologue is a half hour or more in length--Faith Healer is also a showcase for Friel's rich language, fluidly lyrical and sardonically skeptical in turn. It's also a tour de force of emotion requiring its three actors to negotiate sharp, subtle shifts of feeling, from broad comedy to delicate poignance to devastated grief. It can be an audience's nightmare if badly done--or a dream come true if well played. This trio of Equity actors, performing in a tiny rehabbed barroom, offer a feast of close-up story telling. In such intimate environs any false note would ring loud and shrill; director J.R. Sullivan has coached his talented threesome well, and the result is theater magic. Si Osborne, though too young for Frank, is right on the mark with his character's compelling blend of charisma and self-loathing; Lia Mortensen is absolutely devastating as the bleak suicidal Grace; and Brad Armacost, in the showiest role, makes Teddy an unforgettable variation on the Greek chorus, telling with a brilliant mix of awe and outrageousness of the terrible wonders he has witnessed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Anastasia Congdon.

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