"Bloomsday" is a Bittersweet Look at a Romance that Might Have Been
Fans of Irish writer James Joyce celebrate “Bloomsday” every June 16. In his modernist epic Ulysses, Joyce chronicled every moment of that day in 1904, following his protagonist Leopold Bloom around the city of Dublin on a host of errands and encounters while he distracts himself from the knowledge that his wife, Molly, is meeting her lover for a tryst in their bed. Audiences who want to follow in the footsteps of Joyce’s characters should check out Steven Dietz’s play Bloomsday — the first show of Strollers Theatre’s season — at the Bartell Theatre through Sept. 28.
When the play begins, visitors from around the world are gathering for a walking tour based on the novel, led by a perky young Irish lass named Caithleen (Mikayla Mrochek). But there is something different about this literary jaunt down O’Connell Street, to the General Post Office, across the Liffey and through St. Stephen’s Green. A twenty-something couple and a similar pair 35 years their senior seem to have gotten “un-stuck from time.” A gray- haired Robert (Sam White), a Joycean scholar who can’t stand Ulysses, tells young Caithleen that she’s going to meet a young man on her tour today and call him an “eejit.” His advice is to break the young cad’s heart and be done with him. Meanwhile, a leather jacket-clad American, Robbie (Joshua Biatch), asks an older woman if she’s seen a beautiful girl walk by. The philosophical Cait, a Dubliner via Galway (Rebecca Raether), advises the young man to sit with her on a bench, have a bite of freshly baked roll, and forget about his pursuit.
So Dietz’s characters, under the confident direction of Matthew Korda, have the chance to do what many of us may fantasize about: revisit a pivotal moment from their past where a relationship might have blossomed, and make different choices. The premise of recovering a lost love is alive and well in every romance novel set at a high school reunion, but Bloomsday approaches the subject with an extra dose of poetry, magic and melancholy that is often associated with the Emerald Isle. The result is sometimes beautiful, often ponderous and ultimately bittersweet.
As the middle-aged English professor consumed with regret and determined to glimpse the life he might have led, White pours years of wistful longing into his lines as he stares at the girl who got away. Chiding his younger self for his stupid hesitation and slovenly appearance, it’s as if he has willed these moments into being, desperate to reconnect with the last thing that made him feel warm and alive.
And as the object of his fascination, Mrochek proves herself plenty memorable. With wild curly hair and a sharp tongue, she barely covers an underlying desperation to escape a landscape that bores her, a difficult home life, and a future that may include inherited mental illness. As her older self, Raether is resigned to a sadder but wiser life — preferring to hang on to the “ache” rather than seize the current moment.
Mrochek’s youthful energy immediately sparks past memories in White’s character, and he and Raether have the pleasant chemistry of good friends. But Biatch’s Robbie doesn’t connect as meaningfully. As a result, the second half of the play, which focuses on the whirlwind, one-day romance decades ago, sags. Worse yet, Robbie’s obsession with taking Caithleen’s picture during the tour reads as creepy instead of cute.
An innovative, immersive set, designed by Teresa Sarkela keeps the action of the play moving and fills in convincingly for various shops and doorways throughout Dublin. But original Celtic-inspired music by Erin McConnell and Evan Lange that underscores the entire play often isn’t used to the fullest effect in performance.
Like the famously difficult tome, Ulysses, what really happens between the characters in Bloomsday is open to interpretation, and most will find the poetry it contains worth the trip.