Out of their Minds
by David Willinger
produced by New Media Repertory Co.
directed by Miranda McDermott
I’ll bet you didn’t know that in the late 1920’s, in Paris, Samuel Beckett was James Joyce’s assistant. David Willinger has made this circumstance the subject of a play, Out of their Minds, which has been produced by The New Media Repertory Co. Plays based on actual people, of course, risk putting mere icons on stage, but WIllinger shows us real people whom we care about.
During the period of his employment Beckett became involved with Joyce’s daughter Lucia. More to the point, Willinger tells us, she threw herself at him. The play implies that they became engaged without consulting her parents. Lucia, at any rate, was committed to a psychiatric institution after Beckett left Joyce’s employment, where she spent the rest of her life. We learn about this after the fact; what we see of her insanity is an uncontrolled manic episode that occurs when Beckett tells her that his attentions were designed to ingratiate him with her father.
The play is set entirely in the Paris apartment where Joyce lives with his wife and daughter, starting in 1928. We’re in the midst of erudite Bohemianism here. The apartment is deep with papers; at the drop of a hat, the characters dive into German or Italian. Mts. Joyce tells us that her family is “deep in the merde of modernism.”
As Joyce’s wife Nora, Roxann Kraemer introduces herself to us in a scene that’s nearly a monologue. She gives the speech opposite, complementary emotions; she flies from one beat to another with joy and commitment. Her acting has depth and delight and meticulous craftsmanship throughout.
Tony Greenleaf’s performance as Joyce is more subtle but no less engrossing. He speaks with a good-natured, self-absorbed mumble, in rushed starts as if he forms a thought first and then has to catch up with it. When he points at Beckett with his long index finger he creates an eloquent line in the stage picture.
As Lucia, Erika Salazar is expressive and emotionally grounded. She’s in control of her acting even when she’s shrieking in insanity with an abandon rarely seen on stage.
McDermott’ casting of Greg Horton as Beckett, however, is ill-advised. Beckett was a full generation - 24 years - younger than Joyce. He’s 22 at the play’s opening, Joyce 46. However, both actors look Joyce’s age, so we never see the difference in generation central to the story. We never really believe the faltering young romance that sneaks into the tight family. When Beckett is timid with Joyce and shy with Lucia, Horton looks false. A good actor, but miscast.
Willinger places suggestions of the plays Beckett would later write in his experience with the Joyce family. We see the life that inspired his art. As he watches, Joyce and Lucia do a vaudeville routine - just for fun - that anticipates Didi and Gogo in his play Waiting for Godot. He and his wife play a game that suggests Pozzo and Lucky, two other characters in that play. It’s totally absurd but fun to watch.
Willinger’s play is clever and entertaining, but it lacks action. Sometime in the latter half of the first act we start to miss plot. He’s chosen - and it’s an interesting choice - to reveal the relationship between Beckett and Lucia without without centering it. But he overdoes the subtlety. We’re not allowed to watch the love affair develop.
The first act is lively and graceful. The second act - and this is smart playwriting - has a different tone. Its first scene is set years after the first act ends. Joyce and Beckett are alone in the apartment, Lucia in the asylum and Nora, having left her husband, absent as well. It’s an intense scene with a range of emotions, marred by Lucia’s appearance reciting a letter - in a familiar stage convention - Joyce has received.
The final, somber scene is set still later, in 1939 - as the Germans invade France, the program tells us. The apartment is devoid of the gaiety it had brimmed with, empty even of the meaty accusations of the previous scene. The two men sit and stare into space in a moving, somber coda to the play.
Willinger succeeds partly because he treats his characters his characters with humor. Director Miranda McDermott keeps things moving at a nice clip and at an even pitch. The production never dwells and never rushes, is never either brassy or timid. The scenes are brisk and crisp.
Out of their Minds is flawed but charming and for the most part entertaining. It’s marvelous to hear the Irish brogue, to see Joyce and Lucia in their silly vaudeville routine. We’re interested in seeing what The New Media Repertory Co. does does next.