Lucia's Chapters of Coming Forth by Day
nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
September 16, 2011
What happens to a dream deferred? Ruth Maleczech’s galvanizing portrayal of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s tragically disturbed daughter, made me think of and viscerally feel the first line of Langston Hughes’s famous poem, in the equally stunning and heart-wrenching production of Mabou Mines’ Lucia’s Chapters Of Coming Forth By Day.
As a young woman, Lucia held court in Paris among the bohemians and intellectuals of the time, including her father’s contemporaries Samuel Beckett and Ezra Pound. She was a dancer, trained by Isadora Duncan’s brother, and a painter. Her father was already famous for his masterpiece, Ulysses, and Lucia was both adored by him and thought to inherit his genius and potential for artistic greatness.
But in her early twenties, Lucia’s behavior became unpredictable and then violent. She was institutionalized at the age of 27 till her death at 75 in 1982. The play takes place in the final moments of her life. In a long dress cleverly designed by Meganne George to look like both a hospital gown and a stage costume with flowing sleeves worn by an Isadora Duncan dancer, Maleczech uses the immense mastery of her voice and fierce artistic commitment to mesmerize her audience with childish grumbles, shocking growls, seductive murmurs and keening wails.
She tells us that she has written her own book. In it, is everything she needs to help her journey to the afterlife. The language she uses is made up partly of words of her own invention, which raises the fascinating question; how much did the effects of her mental illness inspire her father’s writing?
Paul Kandel brilliantly plays Joyce, mostly in the shadows behind a scrim as if he is an ever present and haunting memory. As Lucia rambles, we see him flip open a notepad and write. The effect is sinister, almost vampire-like. The discipline and focused effort to create art may be beyond Lucia and although they would otherwise disappear into the air, they are still her words and he is taking them.
Another possibility is that Joyce may have been trying to connect with his child in the only way he knew how, but the idea of Lucia being physically abandoned yet mined as a muse twisted my gut, especially when she says, “I don’t like in-sex cest…sects.”
It made me think of the possibly terrible reasons for her illness—which, we also learn in the play, was never properly diagnosed, although she was studied by Carl Jung, spent her life incarcerated and subjected to medieval sounding remedies such as salt-water treatments and isolation therapy.
Writer and director Sharon Fogarty explains in her director’s notes that she was inspired by Joyce’s Book of The Dark, a book written by John Bishop about how Joyce was influenced by The Egyptian Books Of The Dead while he wrote Finnegans Wake. Noble and later common Egyptians for a millennium, till around 50 BCE, created texts of magic spells and incantations as guides in their travels after death.
These books, written over a lifetime, were called “chapters of coming forth by day.” Although it becomes clear to us why Lucia has her book at the ready, it is striking, and to me terribly sad, that the chapters, which she refers to, are not guidelines for a more peaceful and happy future, but regrets, anger and sorrow of the past. How, I wondered, is she equipped to travel with such painful and heavy baggage?
I also briefly questioned the images of her traveling by water, as in the river Styx, as that is the mythology of a different culture and time, but the symbol of water as a passage to the afterlife still heavily resonates, especially as created with beauty and whimsy by set designer Jim Clayburgh and projection design by Julie Archer.
Music created by Carter Burwell also adds to our awareness of Lucia’s past and future travels with a collage of Roaring '20s jazz, Irish music, rushing water and an ominous sound that made me think of journeying through space.
Fogarty has created a beautiful and deeply thoughtful ode to a tragic and forgotten woman, but it is Maleczech who fights with all her soul for every scrap of Lucia’s dignity and value. This production will leave you breathless. Please go see it.