There is no greater drama than what happens inside the human mind.
Balagula Theatre's latest play, Mrs. Klein, takes the audience directly into the mind — and home — of Melanie Klein, a real-life pioneer of controversial theories in child psychoanalysis.
Set at the peak of her career in 1934, the 1988 play chronicles her reaction to the death of her son, the disintegration of her relationship with her daughter, also a psychoanalyst and a bitter professional rival, and the eventual replacement of a daughter figure with yet another analyst, German refugee Paula.
Like both Mrs. Klein and her theories, the play is challenging to grasp and problematic on a variety of levels but ultimately rewarding for its psychological and historical insights.
The play's greatest obstacle is its opening act.
Playwright Nicholas Wright takes his time establishing the characters and the conflicts that will erupt and resolve by the play's end. This includes an overly long and slow introductory exchange between Mrs. Klein (Natasha Williams), who is leaving to attend her son's funeral, and Paula (Lisa Mendez), who will be looking after her affairs.
Williams' detached delivery of her lines is that of a mother numbed and stunned by the shock of grief; she alternates between disarming moments of warmth and clinical, remote intellectualism that can sometimes feel hollow.
Like Klein's daughter, Melitta (Stephanie Pistello), I found myself making an enormous effort to connect to what was, and often what wasn't, happening on stage.
Pistello's arrival as Melitta injects welcome vitality to the production, particularly when she is caught snooping around her mother's home. With mother and daughter finally onstage together, the play's momentum quickens, and the overt and covert drama is more accessible.
The play continues to crescendo into the second act, which feels almost like a different play.
Klein is an enigmatic character, caught in the cross-hairs of a clinician's mind and a mother's heart, and as the plot drives this schism deeper, Williams' performance becomes engrossing. We come to understand that Klein — who is not entirely likeable, another peculiar but necessary challenge of the play — uses her psychoanalysis as a coping mechanism, which further alienates her, often at the worst moments.
When a heated conversation with Melitta sends Klein over the edge, she reacts according to her theoretical focus, on the primitive level, and effectively severs her relationship with her daughter in a scene of jarring emotional power.
Pistello does a good job showing Melitta teetering between compassion for her mother and the impulse to completely free herself from her controlling grasp.
Mendez delivers a subtle, intriguing performance as interloper Paula, who eventually replaces Melitta in Klein's life.
Wright's script is loaded with details that bring to life the intriguing and suffocating theories and atmosphere of an important era in psychology. Especially noteworthy is the portrayal of women as intellectual pioneers just six years after gaining the right to vote in England, where the play is set.
Sometimes hot and sometimes cold, Mrs. Klein is a challenging exploration of a fascinatingly flawed woman.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.