Reviewed by Judy Richter
"Hysteria: Or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis," by British playwright Terry Johnson, is a play that can't decide what it wants to be. Sometimes it's a farce, complete with characters in their underwear and attempts to hide one person from others. Other times it's a serious drama in which the daughter of one of Sigmund Freud's former patients confronts him and forces him to question his theories and techniques. It's the play that opens Aurora Theatre Company's 16th year.
It takes place in London in 1938, where Freud (Warren David Keith) has taken refuge from the Nazis. It's the last year of his life, for he is suffering from painful, inoperable oral cancer. After receiving an injection of morphine from his physician and longtime friend, Abraham Yahuda (Charles Dean), shortly before 5 a.m., Freud experiences what may or may not be a dream. A young woman, Jessica (Nancy Carlin), pounds on his garden door demanding to be let in from the rain. Once inside, she insists that he help her. As she relates her experiences, he says she's describing a case he's already written about. Ah yes, that patient was Jessica's mother, who apparently was successfully treated, but who committed suicide in an insane asylum a few years later.
Jessica denounces Freud for having retreated from his earlier idea that many of his patients, especially the women, had suffered sexual abuse by a close relative such as their father. He later said the abuse was all in their imagination, but Jessica implies that he changed his notion because so many of his patients came from wealthy families that would be scandalized if any word of misconduct got out. There's even some implication that Freud himself may have been molested by his father.
All of this is quite heavy, but it's leavened by the frenetic presence of surrealist artist Salvador Dali (Howard Swain). Both Jessica and Dali spend a lot of time clad only in their underwear. The doctor is the straight man, the one from whom embarrassing situations must be hidden.
The production is directed by Joy Carlin (mother of Nancy Carlin, who is married to Swain). She shows a sure hand except for allowing Swain to overdo Dali's idiosyncracies.The other three actors have their performances down just right. The set is by Richard C. Ortenblad Jr., the lighting by Jon Retsky, the sound by Chris Houston and the costumes by Callie Floor.
The play holds some historic interest because of the enormous influence that Freud has had on present-day psychiatry (even though many of his theories have been debunked). However, the topic would probably be better served if the playwright had focused on the serious aspects of the drama and foregone the farce.