Hysteria starts with a real case study of Sigmund Freud’s, adds touches of zany surrealism, highlights the crucial historical context, adds broad, almost slapstick comic patches, and splices in startlingly poignant and dramatic interludes. The piece explores aspects of memory, even buried ones, the residual effects of guilt, degenerative effects of aging, even professional legacy. It’s a lot for one play to handle, but the always-ready Rep Stage is up to the task and executes the best that can be done with the brightest cast and most talented director the playwright could hope for.
Jeff Baker gives a rich and clear portrayal of Freud with a doddering style, inquisitive stance and gait, even a measured manner that works beautifully. Baker has even mastered the art of holding significant pauses in profile as if the character is in penetratingly deep thought. The play begins with him in the listening position, just sitting for the longest, adjacent to an empty psychiatrist couch. Only when he utters his first words does it finally dawn on him that he’s been in a waiting game to see who will break the silence first, him or his patient, totally unaware that no one else is there.
Those early moments set the entire tone for the play which explores aspects of memory, delusion, guilt, and fantasy. True to its name, Hysteria has them all.
The sudden appearance of a mysterious woman tapping on the double door patio window sets the story in motion. She is unrelenting in her urgency to consult with him despite his just as powerful resistance. But, she will not take ‘no’ for an answer and literally strips to skivvies and bare bottom to make her point. Only as the story unfolds are we given clues about her identity, her motives, and her insatiable need to understand the psychological meaning and interpretations of events, occurrences, and dreams. Are they her dreams or someone else’s? Marni Penning is hauntingly effective in this role, particularly as more is revealed about her identity and quest. She maintains an unshakeable grip on her mission and no matter how many demons are unleashed, she does not let go, delivering a provocative performance. Conrad Feininger, in an unflinchingly honest portrayal, is solid as Freud’s friend and Doctor, Abraham Yahuda, who serves as constant reminder of the encroaching Nazi German occupation with each distant bomb explosion or air raid.
Bruce R. Nelson is hilarious as Salvador Dali, who at one point also strips down to his undies. There’s a lot of stripping to bare nakedness on stage, which, considering the visual arts element probably symbolizes getting to a blank slate or canvass sans embellishment, accoutrement, covering – nothing, just as bare as a baby’s bottom. Nakedness is such an important feature that one character is cast for just moments on stage in the buff. That takes it a bit far in my view, to make a point, and brings on the climax with a heavy-handed thud. Once all the quirky surrealist points are made and the strange objects removed, the scene quietly reverts back to its naturalistic opening in creaky silence making you reconsider how much of the character’s experience was real or delusional.
With a steady hand, director Steven Carpenter keeps the pace moving through the moments of sheer lunacy, intellectual arguments, periodic chess moves and devastating accusations down to the chilling final moments to seal the deal.
The set designers, under the direction of Klyph Stanford and lighting by the incomparable Dan Covey, add to the delusional effects by creating ingenious objects that change shape and even seem to melt in Salvador Dali style on cue. In one nightmarish scene, the bright lights and sounds of a loud menacing freight train appear suddenly and seem ready to barrel down the track directly through the open patio doors as part of the technological wizardry in the show.
The playwright explores the genesis of the term ‘hysteria’ and its overtones about early sexual abuse in women’s psychology with piercing honesty. It’s astounding that these and other such archaic concepts, while revolutionary at the time, maintained a stranglehold on the profession and are deeply rooted in the foundation of modern psychology.
Hysteria with its co-mingling of drama and farce, neurosis and repression, helps to deconstruct the ideas in an assortment of contexts to help understand the residual impact on our lives even now. Inspired in part by an actual visit that Dali paid to the dying Freud, the play is na intriguing look at these two titans who helped unlock secrets of the subconscious. With all the ways to get lost in the crises of the global outer world of hardship, pain, and abuse, buffeting the construct of the inner world full imagination, interpretation, regression and repression, it’s enough to make you wonder why we’re not all lying on the proverbial couch talking our hearts out seeking some semblance of normalcy.
Written by Terry Johnson
Directed by Steve Carpenter
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson