Even a man like Samuel Beckett – the Irish modernist notorious for damming his feelings behind a brick wall – can only run so far from love. After being tricked into marrying Lucia Joyce, daughter of his fellow avant-garde luminary James Joyce, her unrequited affection hunts him down to the ends of the earth and tortures him with poisonous guilt. As he stews in his own version of Dante’s Inferno, it gnaws at his wit until his emotional wall is rubble. This is how we find Beckett at the opening of Don Nigro’s Lucia Mad:driven utterly insane by the passions of a young girl. Nigro and director Paul Moser, associate professor of Theater, deftly trace Beckett’s painful descent into madness – and the parallel descent of Lucia – in a bleak piece of historical fiction superbly executed by Oberlin College Theater.
Lucia and Sam serve as dual protagonists; yet the stage personas of College senior Llewie Nuñez and College junior Danny Prikazsky couldn’t be further from one another. Nuñez ignites her scenes with powerful emotion and physicality, believably bounding with glee and writhing in anguish. Lucia is said to be the embodiment of James Joyce’s work; as such, Nuñez never skimps on her character’s ability to confound the audience with her moral ambiguity. The audience never knows whether to sympathize with or despise Lucia, especially when she tortures those closest to her for reasons we understand all too well. Prikazsky’s performance is equally stellar, particularly in his portrayal of Beckett’s complicated thoughts. His discomfort with Lucia, his reverence for her father (played by College senior Linus Ignatius) and his own mental tug-of-war are rolled into a constantly evolving and conflicted character.
The cast also includes College juniors Rachel Smith-Weinstein, Hayes Biche and Kristopher Fraser, who round out the cast with personable performances that complement, rather than upstage, their colleagues.
The show takes place in a makeshift theater-in-the-round. This, plus an expert use of lighting and sound, is the highlight of Moser’s directing. Action happens on all sides, and sections of the stage take on multiple roles: a kitchen table becomes an outdoor café, the back of the Joyce household doubles as Lucia’s asylum cell. Lights and sound add a realism and ambience to the scenes. The sounds of Paris set the mood for an outdoor conversation, just as a single harsh light shines on Prikazsky during his stream-of-consciousness ramblings.
As Lucia Mad concerns two prominent writers, the dialogue is almost literary in nature. Nigro gifts his characters lines which, if thought over, are significantly insightful. They’re often buried for the sake of a heated argument, but the content is there. This attention to detail closely ties the play to the literary works of the authors involved.
Oberlin College Theater does the brilliantly depressing Lucia Mad more than justice. Its six actors give it their absolute all, and the result is an unnerving exploration of the dark power of unbridled love. Marrying Lucia may have seemed a simple mistake, but by the show’s end it is described in James Joyce’s own words: “a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.”