Mabou Mines – Lucia’s Chapters of Coming Forth By Day

Sunday afternoon I went down to 150 1st Avenue (the once-and-future PS122) to see the new(ish) Mabou Mines production Lucia’s Chapter of Coming Forth By Day.

The last thing I’d seen by Mabou – also featuring Ruth Maleczech – was Pataphysics Penyeach: Summa Dramatica & Porco Morto and that had left me with mixed feelings. I knew this show was about Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James Joyce, and I knew that it was a kind of collage/impressionistic memory play – but not much else. I went in not knowing what to expect and found myself thoroughly delighted. Maleczech is riveting as the elderly Lucia, deftly weaving in and out of lucidity, from coherence to stream-of-consciousness, from bitter old woman to fetching young ingenue. It is a remarkable performance. And it makes you realize how few fully-realized, complex and layered parts there are for older people – especially women.

Oh and I also realized that this was the show that inspired Ruth’s sequence in David Michalek’s Portraits in Dramatic Time that was on display on the plaza at Lincoln Center this summer:

Photo by David Michalek

While Ruth’s performance is the heart and soul of the production, she is supported by a sophisticated and thoughtfully integrated design. Wooster Group founding member and long-time designer Jim Clayburgh has created a complicated, modular, moving set made of screens and a large chair on a cantilever that lifts Maleczech into the air and leaves her floating in a sea of images and memories. His lighting design moves subtly from threatening to bright light – providing understated emphasis to the action of each scene.

The multi-talented film (and other stuff) composer Carter Burwell has created a haunting, evocative score. Julie Archer’s projections are visually compelling with about being overwhelming – except when it is on purpose. There is a sequence towards the end where things take a more clearly narrative turn and the stage quickly fills up with images of words accumulating to the point where they overwhelm the actors – it is a vivid portrayal of the state of Lucia’s mind.

Throughout the piece a shadowy figure lurks in the background – James Joyce as played by Paul Kandel. Papa Joyce is both Lucia’s tormentor and protector, savior and exploiter. When he finally comes out from the shadows their relationship – complicated as it is – becomes more clear.

Sharon Fogarty wrote and directed the show, with some additional writing by Lee Breuer. Fogarty does a great job, balancing slippy surreal language with moments of startling, sometimes disturbing clarity, often tempered with a gentle, world-weary but still playful sense of humor. She also knows how to get great performances from her actors – and how to put together an incredibly talented team and integrate all the parts seamlessly.

The title of the show refers, somewhat obliquely, to the Egyptian Book of The Dead, suggesting that Lucia is recounting her life as she disengages from her body and wanders through the landscape of Death seeking respite and peace. One of the things that is so wonderful about the piece is that it – mostly – resists being heavy handed or maudlin. Lucia’s plight could be over-sentimentalized in a “Lifetime Movie of The Week” kind of way, goodness knows she was mistreated and misunderstood in her life. Not to mention exploited by her father (see the show, it explains that part). But Lucia’s Chapters resists easy sentiment or romanticization – Lucia is mischievous and crotchety, clever and sometimes rude. It is unclear whether she was, in fact, mentally ill or just the victim of a time that didn’t know how to deal with free-spirited women.

The verdict may be out on that question – but not on Lucia’s Chapters. This is the sort of show that has such high quality acting and production values you kind of wonder why it is “downtown” and not at, say, BAM. Or Lincoln Center. And you definitely don’t want to miss Ruth Maleczech’s performance – definitely go see the show if you have a chance, it is playing Tuesday, September 20 – Sunday, September 25 at 150 1st Ave. Tickets available here.

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