Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Wrestling Patient"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Larry Stark

"The Wrestling Patient"

Written by Kirk Lynn with Anne Gottlieb and Katie Pearl
Directed by Katie Pearl

SpeakEasy Stage Company
Boston Playwrights' Theatre
FortyMagnolias Productions
Scenic Design by Richard Chambers
Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner, Jr.
Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker
Sound Design by Benjamin Emerson
Properties Supervisor Jarrod Bray
Technical Director Marc Olivere
Fight Choreography by Robert Najarian
Production Assistant Jessica Stansfield
Production Stage Manager Victoria S. Coady

Jaap Hillesum................Daniel Berger-Jones
Louis Hillesum.....................Joel Colodner
Etty Hillesum......................Anne Gottlieb
Mischa Hillesum.....................Tom Gottlieb
Riva Hillesum........................Marya Lowry
Julius Spier..........................Will Lyman
The Wrecking Ball................Will McGarrahan

Where to begin? "The Wrestling Patient" is a finalist for Outstanding New American Play selected by the National Endowment for The Arts. It represents a collaboration of two of Boston's most prestigious producing organizations, and it is presented at the Boston Center for The Arts. Some day perhaps a play or movie will document the five-year struggle of one Boston actress to bring to the stage the short life of Etty Hillesum --- an Amsterdam Jew exterminated by the Nazis in 1943. The heroine of that documentary is Anne Gottlieb, who has lived with the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, seen her life story through two staged-readings, and stands alone on stage portraying Etty herself at the opening of this huge, complicated, compelling play. Ultimately, there is much too much life to Etty Hillesum's story --- material enough for several full-length movies --- but the tragedy and triumph of her life is already riveting theatre.

As the play opens she stands alone on stage repeating over and over "I'm sorry" --- and eventually admits "I'm tired of apologizing for being Jewish!" For this is Amsterdam under German occupation, when a Jew could be asked in a shop "Do they let you have toothpaste?" Life goes on, even for Etty and her very loudly argumentative family, but her law school closes to Jews and her understandable repressed angers drive her to consult a colleague of Carl Jung (played by Will Lyman) whose unorthodox methods --- he uses Palmistry to mask his initial insights into her psyche; and eventually they do wrestle! --- lead her to become his professional partner, and even perhaps his lover.

Etty's family includes a gifted pianist (Tom Gottlieb) who cannot sleep without a phonograph playing (he's convinced that if he admits Mozart and Beethoven were German he could never listen to their music again!); a scholar of words (Joel Colodner); the ultimate Jewish mother (Marya Lowry); and a solidly passive brother (Daniel Berger-Jones) trying to keep everyone sane. Their dinners together are five-part dissonant shouting-matches. (Etty admits this family could not stay silent five minutes if they tried to go into hiding!) Each one of them deserves a play all to themselves.

But, of course, this is occupied Amsterdam in 1941-43, and Etty talks periodically with an unreal spirit of reality (he calls himself The Wrecking Ball) --- a sardonically honest, dapper black-suited Will McGarrahan. He "offers choices" but predicts the future. He can dash hopes and plans by stating "No, you won't see them again: this house will be bombed and burned to the ground tonight." He is not a Nazi, but he matter-of-factly mentions their acts, which intrude on everyone's attempts at a "normal" life.

It takes most of the first half of this enormous play to introduce all these vibrantly lively people and exciting ideas. And the second half largely documents their dying. Dutch Jews are "deported" to a "transit camp" and when all 16-year-olds are thus deported, Etty as a working psychiatrist volunteers to go with them in order to asuage their disorientations and fears. Her diaries are left with a trusted friend and survive --- though she does not.

The sickness and death of Dr. Julius Spier, Etty's psychiatrist, mentor, colleague, and lover belongs beautifully in this dark second half, but life in the Westbork Transit Camp --- despite an uncredited teen-ager Etty attempts to help --- is too much for this bitterly lively play. The act sags, and feels as though it is included not for sound dramatic purpose, but merely as documentation. But the play ends with Etty's brave insistence that the Hillesum's "went, singing, into the box-cars!" and never survived.

Etty however, in her diaries and in this play, does.

"The Wrestling Patient" (27 March - 11 April)
@ The Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA
1 (617)266-0800

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide