What would you do if you could go back in time and observe and interact with your younger self? If you knew how things were going to turn out? But yet you didn’t know how things might have turned out if you made another choice—should you, could you?
And would you do this for love?
This is a lovely, graceful work and it is a pleasure to experience this Washington premier.
“Bloomsday,” by Steven Dietz, is a lovely exploration of these questions. The play also skitters across other topics such as expectations, mental illness, and how much do we owe the older generations.
The story is set in Ireland (Dublin, to be exact) of maybe 35 years ago on Bloomsday. Bloomsday is the commemoration and celebration of the life of Irish writer James Joyce, observed annually in Dublin and elsewhere on June 16, the day his novel “Ulysses” takes place in 1904; that date is when he had his first outing with his muse and fiancée, Nora Barnacle, and is named after its protagonist, Leopold Bloom. People retrace the steps of Leopold Bloom and his two companions, although many fall by the wayside after a few pubs.
Luckily, we don’t have to have an intimate knowledge of “Ulysses;” the novel is simply the Deux ex Machina used by Dietz to set his characters on a wistful, somewhat enigmatic journey in and out of the past. Incredibly enough, Caithleen/Cait and Robbie/Robert both have the ability to shift to the past and back again. Cait is the 55-year-old version of Caithleen; like her, Robert has put the name “Robbie” away and uses Robert. Those two younger names of themselves belonged to the two twenty-year-olds who wounded each other and were afraid—of life, of love, of dreaming, of not dreaming. But when it was demanded of him—Robbie shied away from that much vulnerability, and something in him died that day, as he acknowledges.
Caithleen is played with an intensity bordering on manic by Danielle Scott. As she interacts with Robbie reasons for her brittle veneer become clear—her mother is in a mental institution; her father has a propensity to try to “beat” out of her any hint of her mother’s weakness, and she lives in a traditional society where a yearning to explore the world and just have ideas might be reason enough to be treated with suspicion (e.g., as her mother’s daughter). She’s only 20! And yet her connection with Robbie seems real—she took his breath away with her Irish beauty, and then she challenges him to imagine a wider world. He’s smitten. It’s a lovely, finely calibrated performance that calls for empathy, but not pity.
Josh Adams plays the 20-year-old Robbie, who is funny, resourceful, quick-witted, and so sure of himself on the surface. Yet you can sense him pulling back from Caithleen, and that caution will drive him back 35 years too late.
As the older Robert and Cait, Steven Carpenter and Megan Anderson bring a sense of gravitas to the proceedings. They have more self-knowledge and more of a sense of the winnowing down the days remaining. When they finally meet, there’s a real sense of lost time and opportunities, and sadness at what just won’t be.
Kasi Campbell as the director brings the same sense of pacing and restraint that she brought to other plays she has directed for WSG, including Alabama Story and Summerland. She lets the story unfold without clutter and extraneous fireworks; this is a slight and bittersweet story about one couple’s arc through time, and she finds the grace in it.
The set, designed by Jingwei Dai and Carl Gudenius, creates a sense of the well-worn paths of Dublin; underneath whatever veneer has crept in over thirty-five years, the ghosts still have room to walk and echo off the buildings and streets.
This is a lovely, graceful work and it is a pleasure to experience this Washington premier. It’s a civilized way to spend some time in the theatre, and that’s simply refreshing.
Running Time: Two hours including a 15-minute intermission.
“Bloomsday” runs through February 16, 2020, at the Undercroft Theatre, Washington Stage Guild, Washington, DC. For more information, click here.