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Regional Reviews by Matthew Small

The Wrestling Patient
SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Playwrights' Theatre
and Forty Magnolias Productions

The Wrestling Patient
Anne Gottlieb and Will Lyman
Anne Frank wasn't the only person maintaining a diary during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam in World War II. The Wrestling Patient is a new play crafted by Kirk Lynn, based on the writings of Etty Hillesum, a young woman who also witnessed that terror firsthand.

Shaped along with collaborators Anne Gottlieb and Katie Pearl, Lynn's world premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts is a challenging piece for the work's creators, performers and audience. Revisiting the holocaust, even from this newfound perspective, is not easy for any of us.

The companies teaming up to offer The Wrestling Patient deserve praise for their combined commitment to developing and producing new work for the stage. In an economic climate when it is easier to program a box office hit from the trustworthy library of dust-laden musicals and comedies, the leaders of SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Playwrights' Theatre and Forty Magnolias Productions continue supporting today's theatrical voices.

Etty Hillesum is a 27-year-old woman grappling with mental illness in a family that won't let its children become adults. With the unorthodox assistance of a man trained by the influential psychiatrist Karl Jung, Etty slowly gains the ability to ask the big questions in life and discover her own spiritual calling. A woman who initially seems imprisoned by her own issues, Etty grows to become a courageous caretaker for parentless teenage girls in the Westerbork concentration camp. It is inspiring to see Etty transform into a shepherdess for girls struggling to survive each day.

Also serving as the director, Pearl skillfully helms a provocative original production that boasts a haunting lighting design by Franklin Meissner, Jr. Scenic designer Richard Chambers offers an abstract unit set that provides creative variation and functionality as the play progresses. Charles Schoonmaker's costumes and Benjamin Emerson's sound design enhance the storytelling.

Gottlieb, playwright Lynn's other collaborator, plays Etty Hillesum and Will Lyman plays her therapist and lover Julius Spier. The two deliver compelling performances. Gottlieb has steeped herself in the troubled and hopeful world of Etty with multiple research trips to Europe in preparation for the role.

A contemporary psychological licensing board would not overlook Dr. Spier's major ethics violations. But there is something about Lyman's whimsical, charming and passionate interpretation that allows us to forgive Spier's indiscretions a bit.

Etty's family is played by Joel Colodner as Louis, Marya Lowry as Riva, Tom Gottlieb as Mischa, and Daniel Berger-Jones as Jaap. The ensemble offers some comedic and touching moments amidst the darkness of the reality around them. Will McGarrahan is the Wrecking Ball, that nagging chorus of voices inside the Hillesum family's heads and the very human evil they encounter along their journey.

This is new work, not perfect work. As should be expected, there are some adjustments to make for future revisions. Etty's brother Jaap appears underdeveloped within the first act, yet his character finds ground and becomes important in the second and third. However, these latter acts need a substantial trim to keep the story moving at the pace established at the beginning of the show.

Artists who are truly committed to the development process know that a fully staged production does not mean that the creative process is complete for a new play. Seeing the work living and breathing on the stage can and does inform the creators as they continue to fine tune their script. The extreme care that the writer and his team took in getting to this point indicates that they are probably willing to foster its future growth.

There is a special excitement in being among the first to experience a vibrant new play like The Wrestling Patient. The production runs through April 11 at the Nancy and Edward Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street. For tickets and information, call 617-933-8600 or visit www.bostontheatrescene.org .



Matthew Small



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