A swirl of projected images and evocative music greets audiences at the beginning of "Lucia's Chapters of Coming Forth by Day," now having an all-too-brief run at the Charlestown Working Theater. With the most eloquent and suggestive effects, the legendary avant-garde theater troupe Mabou Mines takes us into the troubled mind of Lucia Joyce, the beloved daughter of the writer James Joyce. As the blurred projections come into stark focus and the sound of a railroad signal fades, a woman steps onto the stage. Just before she sits down in a plain wooden chair, a thin light reveals a door closing and we are locked in the room with her.
"Bad news," Lucia Joyce announces, "I'm dead." So begins a fascinating and fantastic journey into the netherworld of one woman's madness and memories. Lucia spent her early years in Trieste, Italy, as her father struggled to complete "Ulysses," then reaped the benefits of his success with a youth in Paris, where she aspired to be what she calls "a real artist," a dancer and painter. But after she began exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior, including violent outbursts with her mother, she was institutionalized, ultimately spending nearly 50 years at mental hospitals before her death in 1982.
Locked in her hospital room, Lucia may be dead to the outside world, but in the hands of the extraordinary actress Ruth Maleczech , she is brimming with life and full of mischief. With a breathy little-girl voice, Maleczech evokes a spoiled young woman who brags about her furs, claims she rejected Samuel Beckett (who worked as her father's assistant for a time) as a suitor because he was too tall, and declares impishly that she would like to sit on the lap of Ezra Pound again. Just as quickly, she whines with the complaints of an old woman whose false teeth don't fit. As we listen to her stories of a life interrupted by the demons in her mind, she seems to be waiting -- for death? for someone to help her cross the mythical river Styx? for someone to save her from drowning in her own mind's mayhem?
"Bad news," she declares. "I'm still here, rotting in my little room."
The beauty of writer and director Sharon Fogarty's script is that even though Maleczech rarely leaves her chair, Lucia's journey is constantly moving forward. She tries to put together her dreams and experiences, carefully kept in a journal by her side, hoping they will help her understand which way to go after death. As she waits, revealing her visions, realized with lush projections by Julie Archer , a silhouette of her father appears (a lithe Paul Kandel), both frightening and fascinating her. As he moves out of the shadows, the complicated relationship between father and daughter is exposed.
Fogarty suggests Joyce was inspired to write the elliptical, often inscrutable "portmanteau" language of "Finnegan's Wake" as a way to communicate with his daughter, and Maleczech's delivery of the musical, magical snippets from that book are magnificent. The notion that Joyce stole Lucia's soul to use in his art also speaks volumes about the complicated relationship between a parent and child, and an artist's all-consuming devotion to his work.
At one point, a narrator intones that after some time of analysis, Carl Jung pronounced the two Joyces to be "like people going to the bottom of a river, one diving, one drowning." The stunning final image of "Lucia's Chapters" creates that moment for Lucia, with an impact that is both tragic and liberating.