Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wrestling with history

The cast of The Wrestling Patient.

You can tell a lot of talented people have been wrestling for a long time with The Wrestling Patient (at SpeakEasy Stage, in a co-production with Forty Magnolias and Boston Playwrights' Theatre) - its star, co-author, and prime mover, Anne Gottlieb, a fine actress whom I've directed in the past, has been working on it for something like five years, and she has surrounded herself with a highly skilled ensemble. And so now I'm wrestling with how, exactly, to communicate that Ms. Gottlieb and her collaborators haven't really pinned their subject, the life of Holocaust victim Etty Hillesum to the mat; indeed, they haven't even really gotten a grip on it. The Wrestling Patient is both overlong (at nearly three hours) and strangely unfocused; it seems to start over halfway through, and what, precisely, its theme is supposed to be (aside from the horrors of the Holocaust), never comes clear. But how can this be, given the lengthy gestation of the project, and the talents of the group involved?

Part of the problem probably lies in the intersection between the variousness of Hillesum's life and the collaborative methods that apparently generated the script. Etty Hillesum (at left) was an intelligent, sensitive, but unstable young woman from an intelligent, sensitive, but unstable family sequestered (but not hidden) in Amsterdam during the war years. One brother was a well-known pianist who had been institutionalized at one point for schizophrenia; another was a brilliant student but likewise mentally troubled. Etty herself sought a kind of psychotherapy (mixed with a form of palm reading!) from the eccentric "psycho-chirologist" Julius Spier, a follower of Jung with whom she became emotionally entangled - and who encouraged her to keep a diary, which she did faithfully until her deportation to the transit camp of Westerbork, which led to her eventual death in Auschwitz.

That diary, and Etty's subsequent letters, have become the core of The Wrestling Patient, and it's easy to perceive both their attraction as the basis of a theatrical piece, and their hidden narrative traps. For Etty's life has no clear plot, although it has something like an arc: via her interactions with Spier, she came to have the strength to deal with her own neuroses as well as her family's - and then even discovered the inner strength to hold her own against the Nazis. This is certainly an interesting twist on - and perhaps a kind of corrective to - the now-familiar modes of, say, The Diary of Anne Frank: the Hillesums are too fractious, too smart, and too emotionally demanding to serve as saintly victims, and what's more, they eventually struggle against their oppressors with something like a heroic survivalism. In short, they may have been naive and self-involved, and they may have denied their peril until too late, but when the going got tough, well, you know the rest.

But The Wrestling Patient only connects with this throughline intermittently. The text (mostly credited, I suppose, to playwright Kirk Lynn) never precisely nails what it was about Etty's interaction with Julius Spier that led to her budding self-sufficiency (despite some actual wrestling, yes), and the Hillesums are made somewhat more audience-friendly and cutely eccentric than I imagine they actually were. What's more, the production can't seem to decide where it's going to focus among all the story's admittedly-intriguing characters; indeed, it sometimes seems only loosely focused on Etty herself. (And the deployment of a fantasy figure called "The Wrecking Ball" to stand in for the family's approaching doom doesn't really help things, despite a ghoulishly adroit turn by Will McGarrahan.) The historical record has, inevitably, been somewhat simplified for the stage already, but something tells me it needs even more shaping (and edge) courtesy of a strong, single hand, rather than further adjustment from a committee of collaborators. There are, it's true, good moments scattered across the production, and all the performances are strong in various ways (Gottlieb is her usual precise, transparent self, although she never quite taps into what we imagine was a kind of nervous fire in Etty). But the evening nevertheless grows tedious, and inevitably slides into Anne Frank territory despite itself. And we've already taken that tragic train many times before.

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