nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
January 29, 2005
New York is filled with talent. What a treat to see it come together in the excellent ensemble revival of Sabina, now running at Primary Stages. Playwright Willy Holtzman zooms in on Sabina Spielrein, a psychotic Russian Jew institutionalized in Zurich’s Burghelzli Psychiatric Hospital, as the catalyst that brings together two giants: Sigmund Freud and his disciple Carl Jung. The story, tightly written, is a very good one.
As a young intern, Jung selects a nude, catatonic Sabina as one of his early candidates for psychoanalysis, against the advice of Ludwig Binswenger, another physician/researcher at the hospital. The complicated case and the patient’s ensuing progress prompt Jung to write to Freud, reporting on the developments. Freud becomes fascinated with the case; as the two men read their letters, their characters open and a strong bond develops between them. The story, which spans 1906 to 1942, takes us through the course of treatment: rediscovery of speech, word association games, and dream recall and analysis. Along the way to recovery, we see the stepping stones of psychoanalysis, among them catharsis and transference. As Freud says, cures are brought about through love, and sure enough Jung and Sabina embark on the verboten sexual relationship between doctor and patient. Sabina, brilliant in her own right, goes on to become a doctor and psychoanalyst.
It is at this point that Freud receives an invitation to lecture in America. But first, he travels to Zurich to see Jung and his patient. The clever Freud is not without a motive. He and his Vienna colleagues are Jewish, and Freud believes that his religion will be reason enough for others to thwart his work. He names Jung, a Gentile, his heir apparent and subsequently invites Jung to join him on his trip, a huge opportunity for Jung. But Jung's affair with Sabina threatens to discredit his contribution and he breaks with her before departing for America with Freud. Nevertheless, for the doctors, the trip is their undoing. Jung espouses some of his own theories, angering Freud, who subsequently breaks off all contact with him. Holtzman incorporates enough desire in his characters and plenty of obstacles in the drama to lead the play to a logical, yet not altogether predictable, ending.
Adam Stein flawlessly creates the role of Ludwig Binswenger, the voice of compassion and pragmatism. He offers fine counterpoint to Victor Slezak and Peter Strauss, as Jung and Freud, respectively, who both demonstrate strength and verbal dexterity. Strauss does a marvelous job of displaying a crisp, confident Freud, who understands the impact of his life’s work. His huge ego is most evident when Sabina dares to spar with him and he rages at her, “You’re going to play word games with me?” Slezak portrays Jung as a fervent young man, dazzled and obsessed by his patient. He shows a cold exterior that turns sad and empty when his character sends Sabina packing.
But it is Marin Ireland in her vulnerable, passionate Sabina who is the powerful protagonist. Even when she is not physically on stage, her presence is there. Credit Holtzman with a tight script. But give Ireland her full due. In this demanding role, she reveals the complicated mental state of a severely dysfunctional youngster who ultimately grows into a witty, passionate, and brilliant woman. She delivers a full range of emotions, sometimes within minutes of each other.
Ethan McSweeny directs and he keeps the pace moving at a nice clip. Characters enter and exit through lush, red velvet curtains—a far cry from the cotton-poly drapes that barely make it around a patient’s bed in today’s shared hospital room. Still, Mark Wendland’s simple yet wonderful set gives the necessary institutional quality. Metal pinnings crisscross overhead and windows are placed too high to see anything but the time of day. The room is virtually empty save a table and chair. We know where we are.
The original music, by Michael Roth, adds dimension to the drama unfolding on stage. The music ranges from melodic to haunting and Batya MacAdam-Somer’s violin does it justice. Costumes by Michael Sharpe, lighting by Jane Cox, and sound by Robert Kaplowitz are all effective, making Sabina a solid performance on all fronts.