Return to Dublin
Blue Room players shine in tribute to Ulysses
It’s fair to say that most Americans who have actually read James Joyce’s famous novel Ulysses probably were English majors in college.
For a book that few people outside academia have read, Ulysses is remarkably enduring as a literary icon. People know it’s a great book, even if they don’t know why and find it nearly impossible to read. It’s said that the book was so difficult to write that, when Joyce finally finished it, he stopped writing for a year.
Much of Ulysses’ popularity appears to stem from the fact that it serves as a kind of literary guidebook to Dublin as the city might have appeared on a single day: Thursday, June 16, 1904. On that day we follow the novel’s main character, Leopold Bloom, as he wanders around town, meeting people he knows and observing the life swirling around him until, finally, he climbs into bed with his faithless wife, Molly.
In Dublin and cities around the world, including Chico, June 16 has occasioned what has become an annual celebration called Bloomsday—the literary twin to St. Paddy’s Day. People dress up in period costumes, play Irish music, read from Ulysses, feast on pub food and quaff Guinness stout.
The American playwright Steven Dietz has tapped into this Irish nostalgia by writing Bloomsday, a wistful love story that plays with time and memory while appropriating, to some extent, the imagery and language of Ulysses. It is now being staged in the Blue Room Theatre, in downtown Chico, through—appropriately enough—June 16.
Bloomsday’s four characters comprise two couples, one young, the other 35 years older. As we eventually come to realize, they are actually a single couple seen at two different times, with the older duo looking back on a lost opportunity for love and their younger selves struggling to ignite that love despite their inexperience and fears.
When the younger couple meet, Caithleen (Alex Hilsee) is a 20-year-old tour guide whose specialty is showing visitors to Dublin the actual streets and sites mentioned in Ulysses, and Robbie (Gabriel Suddeth), also 20 years old, is an American tourist who just happens to run into Caithleen’s tour group and is smitten by her—though he knows nothing about James Joyce or Ulysses.
In their middle-aged iteration, Robbie has become Robert (Bruce Dillman), an American professor visiting Dublin in search of his lost love. She in turn is now known as Cait and is played by the formidable Teresa Hurley-Miller.
A four-character play asks a lot of actors, and the four players here all do fine work. Dillman, a Blue Room veteran and retired high school teacher, slides smoothly into his role as a cynical but warm-hearted literature teacher, and Hurley-Miller is a perfect match for him (plus, she has a charming Irish accent).
Suddeth has the slightest role, but he makes the most of it, visibly maturing as he tries to understand and win the antic but enthralling Caithleen. She is a particularly complex creation, not least because she seems to have oracular powers edged with madness. Hilsee brilliantly conveys her fragility and also her great depth as a character.
The play has two acts. The first is spent mostly setting up the unusual situation—the time traveling, the two couples who are actually the same couple, Caithleen’s mental illness—and at times is hard to follow. The second act weaves the disparate threads together into a denouement that is accessible and moving.
Credit goes to director Julia Rauter and her Blue Room crew for this excellent staging of a remarkable play. Those among us who have read Ulysses will find it especially enjoyable.