Mommy Shrinked the Kids

Move over, Medea. Drama's quintessential bad mother, who killed her children to take revenge on her husband, has some serious competition in the title character of Nicholas Wright's Mrs. Klein. Closely based on the controversial therapist known for her theories about child psychology, Wright's Melanie Klein did not actually murder her children. Instead, she wrung their psyches dry in order to further her own career, analyzing her kids and publishing the results as her first case studies. Years later, in her life as in the play, she publicly competed for position in the British Psychoanalytical Society with her daughter Melitta, by then a psychiatrist who ardently challenged her mother's ideas and methods. Brilliant, ambitious, ruthless -- qualities celebrated in career-oriented men -- Klein violated commandment number one for motherhood canonization: Thou shalt not think of thyself before thy children. According to Wright's play, Klein's supreme selfishness and almost blind will to power emotionally scarred her family and other people around her.

Klein was a frustrated housewife in Eastern Europe before entering therapy with Freudian disciple Sandor Ferenczi, who encouraged her to become a clinician herself. By the Twenties, along with Ernest Jones and Karen Horney, Klein began to dispute Freud's theories about penis envy and the Oedipus complex, ultimately earning a reputation as an independent and original thinker. She settled in England in the Thirties, where many Eastern European intellectuals, including Freud, took refuge from encroaching German fascism.

Wright sets his play in the drawing room-cum-home office of Klein's London house (sumptuously designed and lit by J.C. Rodriguez in this production at Area Stage Company in Miami Beach) in 1934. Having just learned of her 27-year-old son Hans's mysterious death in Budapest, Klein (Barbara Bernoudy Lowery) has summoned Dr. Paula Heinman (Miriam Kulick), a recent emigre from Berlin, to her home. While Klein attends the funeral in Hungary, she wants Paula to copyedit a manuscript, handle correspondence, and oversee the house. After Klein departs and Paula gets to work, Klein's daughter Melitta (Barbara Sloan) arrives. When Klein unexpectedly returns, the sides of a triangle snap tightly into place as the three women battle each other for attention and understanding.

Although overly long and burdened with irritating psychological jargon, Wright's script -- and Maria Banda-Rodaz's able direction of it -- does offer a fascinating picture of the therapists at the forefront of this century's psychoanalytic movement. Judging by the interactions among these three compelling women, as well as by comments about others in their professional circle, members of the therapeutic community of that time seem to have been manipulative and incestuous: fascinated with the drama and minutiae of their own lives, obsessed with raking through their own and everyone else's pasts, and intent on acting as each other's analysts, as if the community were a snake devouring its own tail.

In this respect, then, Wright's jargon-laden script makes sense. Klein, Melitta, and Paula really would have talked about things such as transference or the infant's fear of the mother's breast as casually as they would wonder what to have for dinner that night. On the other hand, the terminology grows tedious; we feel trapped in an endless therapy session, waiting for something momentous to happen.

Banda-Rodaz's direction highlights both the dull patches and the engaging aspects of the script. Her often torpid pacing underscores Wright's heavy-handed writing, while labored pauses try the audience's already challenged patience. Yet the director's crisp staging of the dynamics between these hyper-articulate women who analyze too much -- who deftly alternate between circling one another and facing off -- illuminates the threesome's complicated relationship.

Banda-Rodaz elicits powerful performances from her actors. We forgive the trio their spotty attempts to maintain German accents because each woman so authentically conveys the perverse and enigmatic connections she feels for the other two. Lowery delivers a masterful portrayal of a control freak committed to denying her son's death rather than falling apart over it. Sloan, who has proved herself an actor with great range in several productions over the last year, brings a forceful authority to her depiction of the glamorous, successful Melitta who still comes crawling home to Mommy -- and hates herself and Mom for it. As Paula, Kulick is required to react to the other powerhouse women for most of the night as opposed to revealing much about her own character. But the actor imparts a subtle intensity to what might be the show's most difficult role.

One more aspect about this sometimes maddeningly cryptic play and production: It is not an example of safe programming. Area Stage Company has gone out on a limb to present a complex, troubling piece, featuring three juicy female roles, that will not coddle audiences with an easy resolution. The script offers the kind of drama South Florida theatergoers deserve to see. Don't anticipate a warm glass of milk brought to your bedside by Mother Klein before she tucks your blankie under your chin. You're better advised to down a shot or two of energizing espresso before paying her a visit; expect a long yet immensely challenging night.

Stage Whispers
After moving to Miami almost five years ago, I immediately skidded into bookstore withdrawal. Coming from the Northeast, where there's an independent shop on nearly every corner and used-book stores almost as abundant, I found Miami's dearth of great places to browse, buy, or even order books downright depressing. As far as finding an adequate supply of theater-related texts here -- let's just say a certain amount of my phone bill every year represents calls to New York City's two theater-book havens: the Drama Book Shop near Times Square and Applause Theater Books on the Upper West Side. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I saw an ad for Drama 101: A Theatre Bookstore in Area Stage Company's program for Mrs. Klein. Located at 6789 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami, Drama 101 is a fledgling, cozy, and quite authentic place devoted entirely to stage and film tomes.

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