James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" is the granddaddy of middle-class psycho-nostalgia (Proust was working the upper-class line, which is somewhat different) and the play fashioned from it shows that although the genre caught on, it was never done better.
"Stephen D," at the Hartke Theatre, is particularly fortunate to have an artist of an actor, Jarlath Conroy, playing Joyce's Dedalus. It is also a well-constructed play, in which passsages from the book have been supplemented from the earlier, partially destroyed text, "Stephen Hero." And the production is excellent, with a variety of fine performances by Catholic University actors.
It seems strange to see, at the Catholic University, a play in which one accepts so easily the idea of the church as villain. Censor, hypocrite, sadist, destroyer of children's psyches, fosterer of women's illusions - the church comes off pretty badly next to the difficult idealism of a man who more nearly fits the modern version of what it is to be religious. One might wonder what would fashion as Stephen Dedalus growing up today. Suppose his mother had told him that nothing mattered to her except that he be happy, and his priest had told him he must follow his own conscience - what would he have knocked up against? Would he ever have developed wings, waxen as they may be?
It is the thoughtfulness of this production that allows one to play with such ideas. Laura Gianmnarelli's Dante, Ed Bourgeois Cranly and many others bring a fullness to parts that could easily have been ruined by a touch of satire, and make it possible to feel the interplay of ideas, rather than just succumbing to the narrator's seductive ego. Because Dedalus is an artist, he must be able to feel the independent life of things and people outside of himself.
In this area, there should also be a vote of gratitude to the playwright, Hugh Leonard, for not following current fashion and making this a one-person play. As compelling as Dedalus' stream of consciousness is, made doubly compelling by Conroy's acting, it would have been much impoverished without the richness of allowing others to have their existence on the stage.