Born in 1734, Franz Anton Mesmer was a German physician and astrologist. He invented what he called magnétisme animal (animal magnetism) as a means of healing. The evolution of his techniques, known as mesmerism, led Scottish surgeon James Braid to develop hypnosis in 1842. It is Mesmer's name that is the root of the English verb "mesmerize." In 1768 Mesmer married a very wealthy widow, fifteen years his senior, named Anna Maria von Bosch. He then established himself as a physician in Vienna. From there he found wealthy patients upon whom to hone his skills. He would sit in front of his patient with his knees touching the patient's knees, pressing the patient's thumbs in his hands, looking fixedly into the patient's eyes. Mesmer made "passes," moving his hands from patients' shoulders down along their arms. He then pressed his fingers just below the patient's diaphragm, sometimes holding his hands there for hours. Many patients felt peculiar sensations or had convulsions that were regarded as crises and supposed to bring about the cure. One can imagine that the sort of physical contact used by Mesmer with his patients invited skepticism from his peers and infatuation from some of his female patients.
Born in 1759, Maria Theresia Paradis was the daughter of Joseph Anton Paradis, Imperial Secretary of Commerce and Court Councilor to the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, for whom she was named. Between the ages of 2 and 5 she lost her eyesight, but by the age of 16, Paradis was performing as a noted singer and pianist in various Viennese salons and concerts. From late 1776 until the middle of 1777 Paradis was treated for her blindness by Franz Anton Mesmer. He was able to improve her condition temporarily until she was removed from his care, amid concerns of possible scandal and the potential loss of her disability pension.Upon her release from the care of Dr. Mesmer the blindness came back for good. In later years she continued to perform across Europe, presenting many of her own compositions. Though much of her work, strongly influenced by teacher Antonio Salieri, has been lost, about 20 pieces still remain, ranging from Cantatas to Lieder music. It is for her that Mozart may have written his Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat major.
This production of The Comfort of Darkness has beautifully detailed period costuming by Alberto Arroyo, and a drawing room designed by Tim Bennett that frames the action of the play with elegance. The absence of any accent work common in period pieces such as this deters the audience from total emersion in the feel of the period. It is especially noticeable when the first few lines of the play are uttered in complete darkness. The all too contemporary American sounding voices don't match the man and woman dressed as 1777 Viennese when the lights come up. The first act is drowsy, and the play as a whole is too long. There are conspicuously long moments of silence meant to be fraught with passion or intensity that are weakened by the lack of pacing that surround them. It seems odd that none of these moments are enhanced musically with suitable pieces. Not only was the real Maria Theresa a singer, pianist and composer, but Mesmer would often conclude his treatments by playing some music on a glass armonica. Obviously, a clearer bond between the two characters might have been established by using this musical connection.
Jane Cortney is a bit stiff as Franzl. Though her second-act scene with Maguire as Paradis, when she reveals her true nature, is very well written, she does not go far enough with it emotionally. It should appear as though the character has ripped off a mask covering what she has always felt and known. Cortney merely skims the surface. Kenneth Kay (Dr. Otto von Stoerk) establishes an easy rapport with Stevie Ray Dallimore, who is dashing as Dr. Anton Mesmer. Though obviously talented, Dallimore is missing that spark that should make Mesmer dynamic and compelling. Jessalyn Maguire is lovely as Maria-Theresa. She touches on the innocence, immaturity and bottled-up passion of the character. Her acting in a scene where she turns the table on Mesmer by passive-aggressively taking control, has great subtext. It is as though she has briefly learned a bit of control from her lover and master, Mesmer himself. There are small nice moments throughout the show, but it lacks any big moments altogether. The subject matter upon which this play is based is potential fascinating, but The Comfort of Darkness falls short of doing it justice.
The other works of author Joel Gross include the play Marie Antoinette, The Color of Flesh, the musical Dillinger, with music and lyrics by Paul Aleman (set to be workshopped next fall), the novel The Books of Rachel, and his movie Mortal Armor, The Legend of Galahad set to be filmed in the UK next summer.
The Comfort of Darkness will be appearing through September 5, 2010, at the Caldwell Theatre. The Caldwell Theatre Company is a professional theatre company hiring local and non-local Equity and non-Equity actors. The Caldwell Theatre Company is designated by the State of Florida as a Cultural Institution and receives funding from the State of Florida through the Florida Department of State, the Florida Arts Council and the Division of Cultural Affairs. The Caldwell Theatre Company is located in the Count De Hoernle Theatre at 7901 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton, Florida. Performance times are Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. For information and/or tickets you may contact them by phone at 561-241-7432 or online at www.caldwelltheatre.com.
*Indicates member of the Actor's Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States. Photo: Sean Lawson