Just as time is a somewhat fluid concept in James Joyce's Ulysses, so it is in Steven Dietz's hauntingly moving 2015 play Bloomsday, now in production at Redwood Curtain Theatre. Bloomsday is celebrated in Dublin every year on June 16 — the day on which Leopold Bloom, the central character in Ulysses, wanders the streets of the city pondering on his life, his wife, her lover and much else — with tours that follow Bloom's perambulations.
It is one such tour that brought Cait (Susan Abbey) and Robert (Gary Sommers) together some 35 years ago. Theirs was a brief encounter that could have led to something much more, but a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications ensured that would never happen. Since that time Robert, an American academic, has been teaching the novel and has now returned to Dublin on a mission to meet up once more with Cait in a bid to recapture that lost dream. Robert clearly has a love-hate relationship with Ulysses; while he can quote large chunks of the text word for word, he also bitterly describes it as "under-read and over-praised" when he runs into young Caithleen (Marguerite Rose Hockaday), who is leading today's Bloomsday tours. Caithleen, meanwhile, has caught the eye of an equally youthful tourist from Seattle, Robbie (William English III), who knows nothing about James Joyce or Ulysses, but is more than willing to learn from Caithleen.
And so begins our journey through time and the streets of Dublin. The present and the past flow freely back and forth, as Robert encourages Robbie to pursue Caithleen while reliving his own courtship of Cait, and Caithleen reveals her own doubts and insecurities, which she fears will lead her to the same sad fate met by Cait. Each character overlaps and mirrors their alter ego, predicting what's to come and regretting what's gone by. (Be sure to take note of that bar of lemon soap when it appears.)
Is this a story of reincarnation, or is history repeating itself? Are these couples experiencing their past or foretelling their future? Is one imagining what might have been while the other dreams of new beginnings? Where does one character's mind end and another's begin? As Cait wistfully notes, "Everyone can know the future if they know where to look."
Brad Harrington's restrained direction brings out the best in a uniformly excellent cast. Sommers' Robert is appropriately world-weary when reflecting on his life with Ulysses but softens into a whole other persona as he reminisces about, and finally reunites with, Cait. Abbey carries an ineffable sadness with her as she foresees Caithleen's future following the same arc as her own life, describing how she has special places in her imagination where she keeps the people she has loved.
English engagingly captures Robbie's wide-eyed innocence as the young American abroad who's all set to carry his love off into the sunset and live happily ever after, but hesitates as he begins to consider what that might actually mean. And Hockaday is quite simply a delight as young Caithleen — switching between doubt and certainty, fear and desire, yet always carrying with her a sense of being somehow different, but in a way she can't quite pin down.
The spare set, designed by Robert Pickering, gives just enough of a sense of place without getting in the way of the characters, although the red wash on some areas does rather make it seem as if Dublin has experienced a bloody murder or two in the recent past; perhaps the death of dreams was on his mind. Sydnee Stanton's lighting design guides the action nicely, subtly emphasizing the flow of emotions from light to dark and back to light again. Laura Rhinehart's costume design enjoys a delightful flight of fancy when Robert and Cait put on their Joycean finery; particularly impressive are Cait's hat and Robert's spats.
Special credit must go to Bernadette Cheyne's dialogue coaching — the Irish accents are thankfully almost flawless. M. Nash does an excellent job of stage management, to the extent of donning a maid's costume and participating quite seamlessly in the action on the few occasions items need to be moved around, and George Inotowok rounds out the quietly efficient production team as the light and sound operator.
Bloomsday is one of those rare productions that is just the right length at a little more than 90 minutes with one intermission. Everything is in balance — writing, cast, production, direction — and the whole satisfying experience left me with a quiet smile on my face for hours afterward. And a gentle hint of that lemon soap in the air.
Redwood Curtain Theatre's Bloomsday runs through Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through March 16. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.
Pat Bitton is a freelance writer/editor based in Eureka who is theoretically retired but you know how that goes. She prefers she/her.
As part of the Zero to Fierce Womxn's Festival, Menil and Her Heart takes the stage at the Arcata Playhouse on March 6-7, bringing to light the crisis of murdered and missing Native girls and women. Call 822-1575 or visit www.zerotofierce.org.
Starting March 13, North Coast Repertory Theatre tackles Shakespeare's Hamlet. The Dane mulls his options for avenging his father through April 12. Call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.