Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Johnson sets his fictional play in 1938 in the Hampstead study of Sigmund Freud, who has recently fled Nazi-occupied Austria and now lives in London. Late one night, Freud, in his eighties and suffering through the constant pain caused by cancer of the jaw, is visited by the strange and frantic Jessica who comes knocking on his garden door, demanding to be let inside. While Jessica's exact reason for being there is a mystery (it is eventually revealed), she badgers Freud from the get go, eventually questioning his changing theories on infant sexuality and how he initially thought that a woman's sexual abuse resulted in her "hysteria," a theory he later recanted. Through the course of the two hour play Freud is also visited by his faithful doctor Abraham Yahuda and Salvador Dalí (who did actually visit Freud in real life). Freud finds himself pulled in different directions by all three people as they all desire his attention. He also finds himself pulled between sanity and madness, wondering if what he is experiencing is simply an effect of his subconscious mind as the cancer takes over his body and his imagination runs wild.
Full of many farcical and downright hilarious moments, Johnson perfectly balances the comedic scenes with the more serious and very frank talk of sexuality. While the quick dialogue includes a lot of names and details, which make it slightly confusing if you're not well educated on Freud and the period, you'll never feel lost and it is never boring. The end result is a fascinating play of humor and heart with some emotionally stirring scenes, including a powerful last few minutes.
As Freud, Beau Heckman never lets you doubt the exceptional intelligence of this man, even during the more comical moments where, for example, he tries to hide Jessica's undergarments or finds himself caught trying to pull the trousers off of an unconscious Dalí. Heckman instills the role with a seriousness that never falters and does a wonderful job in showing us what happens to this man who is used to being in control but finds the tables turned when chaos comes to call. Allison Sell is superb as Jessica. Her re-enactments of one of Freud's patient's therapy sessions are wrought with deep emotion and she expertly and instantaneously morphs from Jessica to her portrayal of the patient with ease. Sell brings a fierce, raw determination to the role of this mysterious woman on a mission, yet also doesn't miss a comic beat when hilariously posing as Dalí's Russian wife. William Wilson delivers a tour-de-force performance as the impulsive Salvador Dalí. With expressive, wide eyes and rubbery appendages, Wilson is a comic delight as the self-absorbed, but lovable artist full of fire and passion. As Yahuda, Clay Sanderson is the straight man to the lunacy swirling around him and he pulls it off extremely well, especially in his final scene with Freud that is exceptionally moving. I can't imagine four better actors playing these parts with more ease, nuance, and expression.
Director Patrick Walsh walks the fine line between farce and drama, between fantasy and reality, and manages to make you guffaw one moment and gasp another, without it ever seeming like two disparate plays haphazardly stuck together. He also designed the realistic set that, along with Rebekah Carriere and JJ Hansen's prop designs, includes a rich amount of detail. Maci Hosler's costume designs are period and character specific with the addition of Sasha Wordlaw's superb hair and make-up designs for Freud and Dalí, bringing these two real people convincingly to life. The lighting designs by Daniel Davisson morph between the two worlds with theatrical ease, full of shadows and light.
With full performances and rich direction that are as passionate, humorous and imaginative as the play, Southwest Shakespeare's Hysteria is an excellent production that makes you laugh out loud one moment while thinking deeply the next. The program notes mention that this is the first time the play has been produced in Arizona. It was well worth the wait.
Hysteria runs through September 19th, 2015, with performances at the Farnsworth Studio at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa, AZ. Tickets can be purchased at http://swshakespeare.org or by calling 480-644-6500.
Director/Scenic Designer: Patrick Walsh