“Himself and Nora” is a flawless performance of a clever, literary play about Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, about their lustful, tempestuous, lifelong love.
Written by Jonathan Brielle and directed by Daniel Sessions Stephens, the Rogue Valley premiere of “Himself and Nora” opened last week at Collaborative Theatre Project in the Medford Center.
The play opens and closes with Joyce’s death in 1941. He lies cold on a bier, prayed over by a black-cassocked priest, Nora cursing Joyce’s soul for dying without her. Himself is Joyce, an Irish dreamer, drinker, charmer, writer who was hopelessly in love with his muse and the woman he married 27 years later, Nora Barnacle.
Wyn R. Hopkins plays Nora, a working-class Galloway maid enchanted by the sweet, sweet words of Joyce, a striving Dublin writer played by Cody Pettit. Together, Hopkins and Pettit are magical, perfectly cast. Their voices are strong and lovely, angry and tender, impatient and urgent and their movements together are lovingly timed.
It’s Nora who inspires, who inflames Joyce with a voracious hunger and fuels his insatiable urge to write. It is Hopkins, who as Nora, proves the strength and value of an Irish woman, one who is equal, companion to her mate. She is at times shrewish but keeps her home and bed warm and sometimes waiting.
Pettit as Joyce transforms the role from mere man to king, to celebrity, to the world’s greatest writer, even as the writer loses his sight. As a less able Joyce, Pettit slows his pace, stays his hand, cools his ardor but not his love for Nora. Pettit and Hopkins’ kisses become ever more tender, more loving as they age and he is weakened by infirmity and blindness.
As a young man, Joyce refuses to kneel at his mother’s deathbed. He’s raised Catholic, schooled Catholic but refuses to subordinate either his actions or writing to Vatican prescription.
Erny Rosales plays the priest who follows Joyce throughout his life, remonstrating Joyce for his lapsed ways, for his lust, for not marrying Nora, goading Joyce into jealous rages. As an Irish priest, Rosales sets a solemn tone in robe and biretta. He is marvelous standing judgment, assigning blame and establishing guilt in the old Catholic way. Rosales has a brogue, not a Latino lisp, and his movements are smooth and contained, remarkable given the man’s talent for extreme physical acting.
William Coyne and Catherine Hansen play the roles of Joyce’s parents. It’s a dysfunctional family, destroyed by drink, ravaged by politics and finally, ended by death. Coyne and Hansen have several roles, and that’s where some of the fun of “Himself and Nora” lies — Coyne and Hansen are respectively Harriet Weaver and Ezra Pound in a vaudeville-like set, and then Hansen returns as Sylvia Beach, showing off her wife, Adrienne, played by Rhea Johnston.
Rhea Johnston and Erny Rosales have two other important roles in “Himself and Nora,” those of Lucia and Guido, the bastard children of James and Nora. Not only does Joyce not give his children his name, but he denies them a stable home and refuses them love. Joyce’s own dysfunctional family persists to the next generation, resurrected as the children lose their identities and confidence to their father, the famous writer.
Three musicians sit alongside the CTP stage. They are part of the story and the music is integral to the narrative of the play and the sensations of the performers. Music director Nic Temple is on keyboard, Steve Sutfin on percussion and Chelsea Villanueva on woodwinds. A prerecorded soundtrack tends to drive a play, changing timing, stress and sometimes meaning, and so the Collaborative Theatre Project’s live orchestra makes a world of difference in the quality of the performance. These talented musicians are responsive to actors, sometimes leading and sometimes echoing the emotions sketched so beautifully on stage, sometimes furious, often gentle, and once in a while raucous to accompany those wild Irish dance steps.
James Joyce is Ireland’s greatest and best known writer, but his work was and is not straightforward or easily understood. It took years for “Ulysses” to be published.
Between his visionary writing style and the frank sexuality he wrote of before his time, Joyce’s writings were very different from others of the day. Joyce’s works could have been ignored and so easily forgotten, the cross of creative angst that an artist must bear.
You don’t have to know anything about avant-garde modernist literature nor have read a word of “Ulysses” to appreciate CTP’s “Himself and Nora.” It’s a fresh new play with a beautiful love story, gifted performers and splendid music.
Playwright, composer and lyricist Jonathan Brielle will be present at the Thursday, May 3, production and offer a talkback after the performance.
“Himself and Nora” runs through May 13 at CTP, 555 Medford Center. There are adult themes not suitable for younger audiences. Tickets are $20-$28 and may be purchased online at www.ctporegon.org or by calling the box office at 541-779-1055.
Maureen Flanagan Battistella is an Ashland freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org