Photo credit: Brian Kenneth Armour
Oh, if we could only talk to our younger selves and give them advice on how to handle their affairs, romantic and otherwise. How wonderful our lives might have turned out!
Every life is full of lots of things, but it’s usually regret that leads the way. What if I hadn’t decided to be a proctologist? What if I had bought Google stock the first week it was available? And, of course, what if I had hooked up more meaningfully with that person I found so damned attractive when I was in my twenties?
Those “what ifs” have been powerful fodder for all kinds of stories, movies and plays for eons. And so it is in the inventive Bloomsday by Steven Dietz, now at None Too Fragile Theater. One couple’s story is spun around and through the warp and weft of the dense novel Ulysses by James Joyce. And just as in the novel, chronological time is considered merely a playground where a person can conduct conversations with himself, herself, and others at any time in their history.
In less skillful hands, this premise could become grindingly precious, but Dietz is a deft wordsmith and his dialogue is immediately accessible (unlike many of Joyce’s convoluted phrasings) and quite pleasing. And the cast, under the well-tuned direction of Katia Schwarz, fashions a lovely, wistful “what might have been” romance.
It begins with the 50-something Robert looking at Cathleen when she was 20, leading a tour through Dublin on Bloomsday, the day when Joyce freaks dress up in period costume as characters from his enormous tome. It’s named after Leopold Bloom, one of the story’s protagonists who rides a stream-of-consciousness wave on a single day in Dublin.
Robert is a professor who teaches Ulysses, reluctantly, since he considers it a mountain of over-praised drivel. But once he spies young Cathleen, standing a few feet away just as she was when he was also young, he is mesmerized. And so are we, as Robert and Cathleen begin to communicate: He speaks ruefully, knowing how things eventually turned out; she chats innocently, in the glow of her ignorance of the future.
As Robert notes, the words in Ulysses are meant for the ear rather than the eye. Joyce’s interminable sentences, often connected nonsensically by colons, are feasts of words that are both fulsome and fucking impenetrable. Happily, Dietz’s take on all that goes down much easier.
This game of hide and seek is played across two acts, and it maintains its hold thanks to some wonderful performances. As Robert, Tom Woodward is amusing and as he registers his distaste for Joyce’s masterwork (he refers to the opus as a “debauchery of run-on sentences”). But his deep fondness for Cathleen shines through that cynicism, and you ache for the longing he feels when he met that girl on that one, singular day.
As young Cathleen, Brooke Turner finds the core of her character’s naïve essence and turns it into irresistible charm. Particularly in the second act, Turner’s delightful reactions to young Robert (who at that time was known as Robbie) and his descriptions of his car are properly giddy.
The older version of Cathleen, called Cait, is played by Derdriu Ring with the dry snap and sass that comes with old older age. Her well-earned cynicism about relationships comports fittingly with Robert’s dark view of Ulysses in particular and life in general.
What works especially well in this production is the way Turner and Ring find a way to match their portrayals, so that we totally believe that each are different versions of the same person. Those differences are stark, and yet the actors create so many attitudinal and postural through-lines that it seems perfectly believable that they share identical DNA.
The fourth character in the play is Robbie, Robert’s younger self, and Nicholas Chokan has some effective moments with this somewhat under-written role. He is properly awkward and at a loss, when dealing with Cathleen, and that feels real.
But Chokan never quite captures the younger version of Robert—the body energy and sly wit—as crafted by Woodward. This is apparent in Act Two when Robbie clearly falls ass-over-teacup for Cathleen. That is the time when we yearn to see how budding love is transporting Robbie in ways that will inform and haunt his future years. But Chokan plays Robbie’s stiff cluelessness a bit too long, and the love connection never feels fully sealed.
Still, director Schwarz makes most of the scenes work with precision and deep empathy. This is particularly true at the end when Robert and Cait, dressed in turn of the 20th century garb, share a table as strangers while their more passionate younger selves cavort in the background. It is a fitting tableau that ends this play on precisely the right note. It indicates that our lives are often ruled by choices that we might have made differently, if only we could see the results of our decisions without that persistent bugaboo of time getting in the way.
Through September 1 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com.