note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Beverly Creasey
THE WRESTLING PATIENT is an ambitious dramatization of the writings of Etty Hillesum, a collaborative effort by Kirk Lynn, Anne Gottlieb and Katie Pearl, playing through April 19th at SpeakEasy Stage (produced by SpeakEasy, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and Forty Magnolias Productions). Hillesum’s WWII journal survived the Nazi death camps but Etty and her family did not.
The play is reminiscent of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK because it also takes place in Holland, has the same tragic outcome and is diary-based ---but that’s where the similarity ends. Etty is much older than Anne Frank when the National Party occupies Holland and begins its murderous campaign against Amsterdam’s Jewish population. Etty is a strong willed woman in her late twenties who wrestles with her conscience, with God, with her difficult family---and literally, on the floor, with her unconventional (to say the least) psychotherapist. He soon becomes her mentor and her lover.
The character of the Jungian, palm reading analyst is one of the more bizarre, and welcome, characters in THE WRESTLING PATIENT. Will Lyman injects a charming twinkle into his eye---and his step---even as doctor and patient (Anne Gottlieb as the impatient, uncompromising Etty) engage in a sort of superego smackdown, no holds barred. Their relationship alone would make a fascinating play. So would the ironic storyline about Etty’s brother, the concert pianist. The family scrambles from pillar to post to get him an exemption based on his talent and status, a suspenseful story on its own but in THE WRESTLING PATIENT, it’s only a small part of the vast material covered by the playwrights.
Etty’s inner struggle about her purpose in the world, and her role as a Jew, once the inevitable has been set in motion, is another strong thread in the play. With three acts and three hours, there’s more than enough for several plays. One of the playwrights’ best inventions is the Nazi who springs from Etty’s subconscious and manifests in her, and our, conscious awareness. Will McGarrahan strikes terror as he describes what will happen to her family. Smug and otherworldly—and at the same time very, very real—McGarrahan gives a powerful performance as the merciless and chillingly elegant face of evil. Sam Shepard carved out a lucrative niche for himself writing plays about mythic America: a seamy, steamy America where dangerous obsessions drive people to ruin. The New Repertory Theatre’s FOOL FOR LOVE (playing through April 5th) oozes danger in director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary’s slick, sinister production.
Timothy John Smith gives a ferocious performance as Eddie, May’s longtime love, who can’t bear to stay with her for long but who can’t stay away from her either. Stacy Fischer makes May an open wound, pathetically fragile and fiercely frantic at the same time. When she strikes out at Eddie, Smith’s eyes are the only indicator that her words have hit their mark. It’s a formidable performance, letting us, and only us, in on his pain---as we watch him lash out at everything and everyone in sight.
His chief target, other than May, is her unlucky date for the evening. The poor guy has no idea what secrets they share. Andrew Dufresne gives a wry performance as the innocent bystander caught in the crossfire. Joseph Finneral, too, gives a quirky, amusing performance ---and we do need those laughs--- as the old man “who married Barbara Mandrell.”