Trouble in mind

Southern Methodist University professor emeritus Margaret Loft directs three prodigiously able and alert actresses through a cataclysmic afternoon and evening in the life of one of Great Britain's most influential psychoanalysts. Mrs. Klein happens to be Melanie Klein, the Austrian Jewish titan who strode into The British Analytical Society in 1927 without academic credentials but with her landmark paper "On the Development of a Child," which took Freud's theories of infant sexuality and its relationship to socialization to a more detailed and articulate height. There's possibly a reason for the microscopic intimacy of Klein's observations: Creepily, she analyzed her two older children and used them as the research material. (Freud had done much the same.) Back-stabbed throughout her career as a fraud by resentful colleagues who believed it was egotism and ambition rather than real ability that fueled her rapid rise, Klein's reputation nevertheless prevailed, at least in her lifetime. But one of her greatest enemies within prewar British psychoanalytic circles was her own daughter Melitta Schmideberg, who grew up to get the legit degrees her mother didn't start with and, presumably, mix personal spite with professional rivalry in her academic attacks on the woman.

If all those historical verities sound as if they'd make a tasty evening of theater, they do. But be forewarned--much of the content of WingSpan's version of Mrs. Klein is chilly, super-rational, and disdainful of feeling. That director Loft has guided her actors to put a wry sheen over the dialogue means she and they realize where the comedy and the dramatic tension lie. The show is dominated by two women who have worked hard their adult lives to explain, define, qualify, and quantify human emotion. The tools they've used to process the relationships of the strangers they analyze inevitably usurp natural, relaxed communication, not to mention the fraught exchanges that are necessary for family wounds to heal. You suspect, of course, that Freud didn't contaminate these minds; they were ripe for the kind of transference, projection, and denial he documented. Hell, by the end of his life, Sigmund had loosened up his attitudes considerably and was trying to get acolytes like Melanie Klein to chill too. They, meanwhile, continued to herald teachings he had already backtracked on.

Mrs. Klein takes place in London, 1934, after the falling death of Melanie Klein's son Hans. He didn't leave a suicide note, but after interpreting the details leading up to and surrounding the tragedy, his sister Melitta (Susan Sargeant) has determined it was a suicide, and more than that, an escape from the mother who had used him as Freudian fodder. She confronts a stricken but still supremely in-control Mrs. Klein (Beverly May). An interloper named Paula Heimann (Linda Coleman), a friend of Melitta's and a proofreader of Melanie Klein's new work on criminality, is there to witness, and occasionally referee, the face-off. Melitta, who'd already been attempting to discredit her mother's reputation, sees the opportunity to humiliate her at the point where professional and personal intersect. She is also beginning to crumble and show the pain that has collected from living with her arguably exploitative mother all those years. Melanie Klein, meanwhile, continues to assign every gesture, every word, every cough and sniff to the great archetypal framework of that giant theoretical waste disposal, the subconscious.

The WingSpan show is paced fleetly and with an appropriate, though never sloppy, sense of the absurd. "I am not hostile to my daughter," Mrs. Klein announces with typical steeliness at one point in the evening. "I am hostile to Dr. Schmideberg." "No hard feelings?" Melitta Schmideberg asks her mother after one angry outburst. "No hard feelings," Mrs. Klein replies. "At least, not on a conscious level." Beverly May and Susan Sargeant are especially well suited to their respective roles. May has the classically trained coolness, the graceful authority, the unforced imperiousness down pat, so she is free to concentrate on what's simmering just beneath the surface rather than schlepp through the show glaring at everyone. Sargeant's performances have a nervous energy, a certain neurotic inspiration, and that works beautifully for Melitta Schmideberg, who's confronting a behemoth of her profession and her mother at the same time (that's a tough double task). I've often thought Linda Coleman's wide, waifish, pool-blue eyes would make excellent instruments for conveying sociopathic calculation, and although she has far fewer lines than the other two, it's important that you notice her being watchful. And you do.

After all this rigorous self-control by the characters, when someone does manage to lose it in Mrs. Klein, the action roars like a thunderclap in front of you. The onstage storm is more cold and unsettling than violent and destructive, which was fine by me. When the theatrical climate is controlled with this much precision, you know you're in the company of performers who understand the material's potential.

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Jimmy Fowler