Friday, August 31, 2007

Aurora Theatre’s production of “Hysteria” intrigues and mesmerizes

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

What happens when a highly imaginative playwright places Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dali and a deeply distressed female stranger together on a rainy London night? “Hysteria,” an engaging and disturbing tale by British playwright Terry Johnson. Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre’s 16th season opener, directed by Joy Carlin, "Hysteria" initially feels like a typical British farce but soon morphs into something much darker and more complex.

Set in 1938 England, the tale begins one late evening in Freud’s (Warren David Keith), Hampstead study, which set designer Richard C. Ortenblad Jr. creates with French glass doors looking out on to a garden, a trio of glowing, dangling etched lights and a plain white wall adorned with a clock and a work by Pablo Picasso. On stage a wooden desk, covered with international antiquities such as an obelisk and a goddess, sits near a plum-hued velvet chair, a chaise covered with Persian rugs and a petite table topped with a chess set, making it all believable as Freud’s office.

Freud, who fled Vienna to escape the wrath of the Nazis, is now dying of inoperable jaw cancer and coping with the increasingly difficult levels of pain with shots of morphine administered by his doctor, Abraham Yahuda (Charles Dean). Despite the grim circumstance, the witty quips between Freud and Yahuda emit generous amounts of laughter from the audience. But the feel of the play quickly changes with the rumble of thunder and the unexpected appearance of Jessica (Nancy Carlin), a young woman who frantically wraps at Freud’s front door.

At first she claims to be a woman suffering from anorexia and a psychosomatic disorder of having three of her fingers stuck together. Freud, old and ailing, possesses no interest in helping her and tries to get rid of her with a referral to another psychiatrist. But the woman will have none of it and soon Freud realizes that she’s imitating a hysteria case study he published thirty years before. Jessica then fesses up to being a student whose thesis revolves around this particular case, saying she’s seeking further insight from Freud. However, she still isn't being truthful and in fact holds dark secrets which she reveals to Freud.

Just when the circumstances become heavier and more unsettling, Surrealist artist Salvador Dali (Howard Swain) arrives for a scheduled visit with Freud, elevating the mood and amping the pace to madcap levels. It’s fascinating to observe how Dali reacts to Freud and Jessica’s interactions and revelations—some touching and others dealing with horrific events of the past. The intensity of one particular scene feels that much more eerie, thanks to the special effects of melting clocks and walls.

An impeccable cast makes this an engrossing production. Warren David Keith portrays Freud with brilliant perfection, Howard Swain gives a hilariously exaggerated portrayal of Dali, Nancy Carlin gives a chilling performance as Jessica and Charles Dean plays Dr. Yahuda wonderfully.

“Hysteria,” plays Wednesdays through Sundays through Sept. 30 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets range from $40 to $42. For tickets call (510) 843-4822 or visit

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