Crucibles

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  March 31, 2009

In Hillesum's case, as in Leslie Epstein's The King of the Jews, that means tough choices, as presaged by the Wrecking Ball when, double-breasted and cryptic in the person of Will McGarrahan, he rolls in early on. Pressed to the wall by family, Hillesum insists on transport to Westerbork and joins the Jewish Council there, shouldering some complicity in order to exercise power over who lives and who dies. Confined at Westerbork, she badgers her not-yet-captive brother Jaap for meager supplies. And this hardly pious person, her self-described "carnivorous libido" oddly sated by the lean meat of her elderly shrink, chooses to witness for God in the most ungodly of circumstances.

The Wrestling Patient may underplay the craziness of the Hillesums, who mostly seem cranky, and it spends too much time depicting the zany if also formative connection between its heroine and Spiers — portrayed by the reliable Will Lyman as a mischievous if pragmatic spirit popping from a door frame in foil antennae (intended to amuse his students) that make him look like a cross between a trick-or-treater and a figment of Tony Kushner's wry imagination. But Pearl's production, played out amid a hodge-podge of levels and culminating in the heroine's hurling of a defiant postcard from the highest one, succeeds in making drama of narrative. This is particularly true in its depiction of the correspondence between Etty and Jaap, which translates into a series of confrontations more urgent and tender than any of the pair's previous kitchen-table skirmishing.

Gottlieb presents a bristling, intelligent Etty brimming with sexual confidence and emotional vulnerability that resolve into a fierce sort of peace. And she has gathered a team less of rivals than of talented confreres, of whom the best are Marya Lowry as the heroine's gloomy, snappish Russian mother and Daniel Berger-Jones as the mottled "rock" that is Jaap. It has taken five years to bring The Wrestling Patient to its feet, but the prognosis, if not perfect, looks good.

Pettier forms of persecution are on view in the hilarious Speech & Debate, a fresh treatment of age-old adolescent themes in its area premiere by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston (through April 25). Set in the chalkboard crucible that is high school as well as in the pioneer tangles of the cyber universe, the 2007 black comedy that began life when author Stephen Karam was a Brown University undergrad made me realize what I'd been looking for ever since Arthur Miller got all prickly about the abbreviated travesty of The Crucible at the center of the Wooster Group's 1980s L.S.D. ( . . . Just the High Points . . . ). It was, of course, a time-travel encounter between a singing, jiving Mary Warren and a gay, teenage Abraham Lincoln matching Warren's enthusiastic moves with sullen, embarrassed elasticity. The presence in Speech & Debate of that fantastical meeting, gussied up in the National Forensics League guise of "Duo Interpretation," should alone be your clue that Karam's extreme take on high-school angst has decades on The Wonder Years.

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