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The least inspired of literati may have drones to take dictation one suspects Anne Rice of wandering about the house in a trance while a devoted scribe follows, scribbling so why not James Joyce? One might even suspect that the great man’s amanuensis, his “slave who writes,” would be another half-mad Irishman. Who knew, though, that for a time at least, the acolyte who marked down the impenetrabilities of the century’s genius novelist was the century’s genius playwright, Samuel Beckett?
With Lucia Mad, Don Nigro takes this historical truth, along with sad realities about Joyce’s brilliant but unstable daughter, Lucia, and the obsessive, delusional passion she conceived for Beckett, and shapes it into a comic drama of measurable craft, no little surprise, and some poignancy. From its first moments, set to the sad strains of one of those unmistakably Irish laments about unrequited love, Washington Stage Guild’s eminently solid production reveals the play to be a deft if mildly repetitive mix of clever humor and real pathos.
Not least among its pleasures is the central performance of Jenifer Deal. Tall and striking, confident in her imposing physical beauty and equally assured in her stagecraft, she briefly makes Lucia almost the most coherent of the crew assembled in Joyce’s Paris home when the play opens in the late 1920s. Not yet 30, Beckett (Morgan Duncan) starts out tongue-tied in the presence of his idol, revealing himself later to be a drunk and a depressive, a man of few (mostly morose) words, and a socially maladroit creature with an unerring knack for the awkwardly blurted non sequitur. “That’s cheered me up,” says a sardonic Joyce at one point. “You’re the Shirley Temple of the Paris literary set.”
Another hanger-on, McGreevy (Philip Baedecker), natters on about inconsequentialities with enough persistence to drive Lucia batty if she weren’t already halfway up the belfry. Joyce himself (William Hamlin) is a narcissist so involved in “the work in progress” (Finnegan’s Wake) that he wouldn’t notice if someone set fire to the house while he was writing. (Eventually, Lucia does.)
Only Joyce’s wife, Nora (Maud Gleason), who cleans and cooks and makes do on a shoestring even as her husband entertains the likes of Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, has the first grain of common sense which is probably why she hasn’t read any of her husband’s output. Nora, naturally, is the first to see the danger in Lucia’s instant fascination with Joyce’s new protege, and Nigro, typically, couches her warning in the kind of mordant Irish wit that salts the play: “Lucia, you’d be well advised not to be putting your cart ahead of your jackass.” If Gleason overplays her part a bit if she’s at times a bit too droll, a degree too comic relief-yshe nonetheless holds her own, and she redeems any miscalculations with a finely calibrated grieving scene at the play’s end.
As one might expect of a story peopled by writers, Lucia Mad traffics in dialogue that would seem a trifle high-flown in other dramas (always excepting those of Tennessee Williams): “I’ve spent much time wandering the geography of despair,” says one character. Joyce speaks in polished sentences, complete with dependent clauses about “a possibly imaginary, but certainly malicious, Deity,” and another character leaves the room with an exit line of rare, fey charm: “I must bribe the guests with cupcakes ’til the sleeper wakes.” But Nigro never overdoes it; Lucia is about 1920s Paris the way The Lion in Winter is about 12th-century Britain, and so there are also snappy sitcom-style exchanges that the cast of Frasier wouldn’t be uncomfortable delivering.
What does the most to keep the play from bathos, though, is Lucia’s gradual awareness that she’s mad schizophrenic, apparently, though both she and her father argue that the storm in her head is merely his brand of genius gone awry without a creative outlet to relieve the pressure and her knowledge from the outset that her kind of neediness would be terrifying even to a man who, unlike Beckett, didn’t doubt the validity of any human connection. “Sometimes I feel like I’m draining into an ocean of loneliness,” she says mournfully.
Director John MacDonald positions her in the middle of the square playing area to deliver that line; she stands at the center of a white spiral painted on a blue floor, a visual reminder of her corkscrewing madness. At other times, people sit at the spiral’s vortex, or she pursues Beckett along its circling lanes. Somehow, though, the device never seems too studied. Otherwise the staging is essentially straightforward, though there’s a mildly theatrical flourish involving a psychoanalyst’s couch when Lucia, having stumped or driven to distraction “doctors of all nationalities,” at last graduates to Carl Jung himself (Baedecker again).
Not long after that “ocean of loneliness” line, Lucia flings this bitter observation at Beckett, unable to bear the truth of it and yet unable to quiet the turbulence in her heart and head: “A person desperate for love is…among the least lovable.” Her tragedy is that she’s conceived a needy passion for a man who sees neediness as a weak and sordid thing; Beckett’s tragedy, Nigro seems to say, is that he’s just correct enough in that judgment to remain forever aloof and alone.