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Sabina: Freud, Jung and the Woman Who Came Between Them

By: Feb. 11, 2005
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You needn't go past the first minute of so of her opening monologue to realize why Marin Ireland, playing the title role in Primary Stages' revival of Willy Holtzman's 1996 psychological drama Sabina, has been getting so much press lately as one of New York's most interesting and sought-after actresses. In passionately describing the mythological events adapted by Richard Wagner in his epic opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelungen she is all at once childish and womanly, worldly and innocent, sensual and cerebral, plus a few more contradictions I'm sure. It is no wonder the two most famous minds in the field of psychoanalysis have difficulty maintaining emotional detachment to this intellectual Galatea.

I'll leave it to the scholars and historians to say how much of Holtzman's story is fact, but even if events and relationships are tweaked a bit for dramatic clarity, the results are an engrossing and lively two hours, exquisitely directed by Ethan McSweeny, that you won't need an advanced degree to appreciate and enjoy.

The playwright introduces us to Sabina Spielrein in 1906, a 19-year-old Russian-Jewish refugee who has escaped the pogroms and is now in a deep state of dementia, given to silent spells when she's not blurting out tales of Wagner's heroes and heroines, an act that can be seen as a form of Jewish self-hatred. Offstage violinist Batya MacAdam-Somer tenderly plays Michael Roth's original music (although I believe I heard bits of the Ring Cycle included) as though it were the inner workings of Sabina's mind.

At the Zurich psychiatric hospital where she stays, Ludwig Binswanger (a humorously detached Adam Stein) advises Carl Jung (Victor Slezak) against taking her on as a patient, but Jung is anxious to test out his practices of word association and dream therapy on this unusual case. Slezak subtly plays Jung's intellectual interest battling his growing sexual and emotional attraction as Sabina, who eventually is cured, becoming a psychoanalyst in her own right, and assumes the more powerful role in a relationship that goes far beyond doctor and patient.

Sigmund Freud (Peter Strauss) is brought into the story, first by Jung's correspondence and soon by a social meeting where Spielrein so charms him with her contradictions of his theories that he invites her to join himself and Jung on a tour of America. "An entire nation half Puritan and half sinner.", Freud quips as smugly portrayed by Strauss, "What analyst can resist?"

As evidenced by diaries and letters of the actual Sabina Spielrein, discovered in 1977, her influence and contributions to Freud's work was significant and perhaps even overwhelming when it comes her influence on Jung. As in real life, Holtzman shows her as the catalyst to the breakup of the two men, both professionally and personally.

Mark Wendland's set, a factory-like background of industrial putty green containing a playing area draped by lush red curtains appropriately remarks on the showmanship and entertainment quality associated with psychoanalysis as it became popular, especially among the wealthy. ("In the age psychoanalysis, talk is no longer cheap.", Binswanger snidely observes.) Jane Cox's moody lighting is just right, as is Michael Sharpe's elegant collection of period costumes.

But as fine as this production may be, Marin Ireland still soars above everything, with a performance I found just as fascinating and attention-grabbing as Freud and Jung found the woman she portrays.


Photos by James Leynse; Top: (l-r) Victor Slezak and Marin Ireland; Bottom: Marin Ireland and Victor Slezak



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