This is Nora Joyce.
Along with the ritual eating of corned beef and cabbage, the wearing of the green and drinking to wretched excess, this year’s St. Patrick’s Day served up some fine Irish fare not usually on the menu. We refer to “She’ll Stick to Ye,” the latest chapter in Jack Gilhooley’s play cycle on the life and hard times of author James Joyce. The play’s focus was his wife, née Nora Barnacle. Donna Gerdes brought her to life (theatrically, not in the zombie sense) in an unstaged reading at the Starlight Lounge.
The play’s conceit? Let’s pretend you’re in a lecture hall in Dublin, circa 1946. Nora (Gerdes) has returned from long exile to address the members of the Irish Women’s Literary Society. The stuffy but good-hearted Mrs. Grace McVey (Annette Breazeale) is the moderator, desperately trying to prevent the inevitable audience stampede out the exit door when notorious Nora has her say. (Cake and tea await if you can stay in your seats!) Nora tells her tale to the ladies and one or two gentlemen. But not politely.
In her coarse, plainspoken way, Nora throws verbal barbs at King, countries (America, Ireland and Great Britain get their share of insults), the Catholic Church, Jung, Freud, psychiatry in general, Samuel Beckett and W.B. Yeats. Chair scrunching and door slams ensue. She relates the ping-pong bounce of her family across Europe, their hassles with publishers, printers and censors, Lucia’s madness, Joyce’s blindness, and the source of the play’s title. (Years ago, Sonny Jim introduced Nora to his father. On hearing that her last name was “Barnacle,” John Joyce told his son, “She’ll stick to ye.” Like father, like pun, eh?) As more door slams and chair scrunches tell us, Nora also keeps offending people and thinning out the audience. Mrs. McVey tries to keep a the Galway girl in line, but it’s a lost cause.
By talk’s end, three people remain. Pretend also you’re one of them. You’ve heard the Joyce family saga and learned a thing or two. After reading a bit of Molly Bloom, Nora says good night, and heads off to Davy Byrne’s pub with Mrs. Grace.
Beautiful story. And, like most good stories, it’s true and it isn’t. The real Nora never came to Ireland. But it’s what she’d say if she did.
Gerdes and Breazeale acted this out beautifully, and had a wicked comic rhythm portraying Mrs. Grace McVey’s valiant efforts to keep a lid on Nora’s bubbling, blunt opinions. Fine performances. And they had fine material to work with.
When it’s not making you laugh out loud, Gilhooley’s play brings you close to tears. A hungry mind gets plenty to chew on, as well.
“She’ll Stick to Ye” is a fine distillation of Nora’s life — not the typical James Joyce hagiography. To the playwright, Nora Joyce Barnacle is no mere appendage to Joyce or that funny working class woman from Galway whose run-on sentences provided the inspiration for Molly Bloom’s soliloquy; she’s a fascinating individual in her own right. Joyce was a giant. Gilhooley brings Nora out of his giant shadow.
JUST THE FACTS
“She’ll Stick to Ye” ran March 17, at the Starlite Lounge, 1001 Cocoanut Ave., Sarasota. For more information, call 941-351-9688.