Crucibles

The Wrestling Patient at the BCA; the Lyric's Speech & Debate
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  March 31, 2009

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THE WRESTLING PATIENT Profound and edifying stuff turned into compelling theater. 

There was room for more than one young Jewish diarist in the occupied Amsterdam of World War II. Anne Frank, who died as a teen, is a 20th-century icon. But until recently, her feisty innocence hid Etty Hillesum's fire. The Wrestling Patient, which is in its world-premiere production by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Playwrights' Theatre, and FortyMagnolias Productions (at the Calderwood Pavilion through April 11), mines Hillesum's journals (not published in their entirety till 1986) to tell a complex and even miraculous story: that of a volatile, unstable woman transformed by a perfect storm of sex, psychiatry, mysticism, and nightmare into "the thinking heart of the barracks" at Westerbork Transit Camp, a teeming way station between the rest of the Netherlands and the death camps.

Actor Anne Gottlieb would appear to be the thinking heart of this collaborative project; she discovered Hillesum's writings in 2004 and determined to bring the "excitable" young intellectual's tempestuous inner life to the stage. Along the way, she enlisted Austin-based writer Kirk Lynn and Obie-winning director Katie Pearl, who helms the powerful, fragmented debut production that follows the script's selection last fall as a finalist in the Outstanding New American Play competition sponsored by the NEA's New Play Development Program.

The theater piece begins with Gottlieb's Hillesum, like a deer tensed in the headlights, apologizing — abruptly, three times — for what she perceives as an inability to go on. "I hate myself like a poison," she confides. It is 1941, and Hillesum is about to encounter first a symbolic purveyor of a malevolent future unsubtly called the Wrecking Ball and then German-Jewish-refugee analyst Julius Spier, a student of Carl Jung specializing in the study of palm prints. Hillesum is not just a hand specimen but also a handful, and the older man will become both her mentor and her lover. Whether or not he's a manipulative huckster dressing up palm reading as insight, he helps guide Etty — a one-time law student now barred from university, and chafing in the bosom of a mentally troubled family — through the sexually bubbling maelstrom of her dreams to an inner strength she chooses to associate with prayer.

This is profound and edifying stuff, and if the overlong and sometimes over-sentimental The Wrestling Patient does not absolutely pin it to the mat, it makes for a compelling piece of theater — arrayed here on a bleak gray jumble by scenic designer Richard Chambers that suggests both oppressed Amsterdam in the two years prior to Hillesum's death at Auschwitz in 1943 and the homy, chaotic interior of the diarist's mind. The latter must be home to the Wrecking Ball, a dapper if sinister invented persona who also serves the script as a Nazi functionary. Everyone else — including the sage yet whimsical Spier and Hillesum's squabbling "madhouse" of a family — is real if subjectively presented, as in the journals. Anne Frank demonstrates the heroism of ordinary people; what we learn from Hillesum is that difficult, even mentally ill people (both of Hillesum's brothers, one a gifted pianist, had been hospitalized, and she suffered from depression) can also rise to as brutal an occasion as History provides.

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