Natasha Williams has worn many hats as co-artistic director of Balagula Theatre.
From producing and directing to handling public relations and writing grants, Williams has been a behind-the-scenes tour de force since she officially co-founded Balagula in 2007 with Ryan Case.
Beginning Sunday, all that changes.
Williams will star in the title role of Mrs. Klein, Nicholas Wright's 1988 play about Vienna-born British emigrant Melanie Klein, a pioneer in psychoanalytic theory in the 1930s. Despite the lack of formal education, Klein ran a successful practice focused on young children. She became an influential thinker and controversial figure in the field, particularly in London, where she publicly clashed with the heir apparent of psychoanalysis, Anna Freud.
The play examines Klein's inner psychological terrain via her relationships with her children, one of whom died in a climbing accident and one of whom became a bitter professional enemy.
Case, Williams' long-time collaborator and Balagula's co-artistic director, directs an ensemble of three women whose characters attempt to use psychoanalysis to solve of the mystery of the death of Klein's son. Was it suicide? If so, was it Mrs. Klein's fault?
While Case has appeared onstage in many shows, most recently in the title role of Caligula, Williams has been onstage only once since emigrating to the United States from Russia two decades ago.
"The last time was in (the play) Copenhagen, and that was not my choice," she says. "It was a necessity because we lost an actor. I was directing it and I just had to replace an actor."
Williams is not the first director to have to take over a role in an emergency, but despite years of method training and performances in Kiev, Ukraine, Williams has shied away from the spotlight in the States because she was afraid her Russian accent would not be accessible to American audiences.
Actor Ed Desiato, who has appeared on the Balagula stage several times, didn't think her accent should be a barrier.
"Ed has been bugging me for years with an idea that I should act in something, and I've been arguing with him for years that I cannot get onstage with my accent," says Williams. "He started bringing me plays that he thought would be fine with an accent."
Wright's script intrigued Williams and Case, and even though Williams admits the idea of performing the lead role is "scary," it's also an important creative challenge.
"I felt I should try and I should take a risk," says Williams. "If you don't stretch yourself artistically, emotionally, mentally, then you stagnate."
It helps that Williams shares some fundamental commonalities with Klein. Both had strong Jewish mother figures. And both are independent-minded women who enjoyed professional success in another country and language.
The regional and cultural displacement of the play's characters — all speaking British English with different degrees of influence from their native languages — is an important underlying theme of the play.
Perhaps what's most appealing and most challenging for Williams is conveying Klein's brutal but courageous intellectual and emotional processes in her performance.
Williams asserts that "actors are not trained to think but have emotions," and that becomes problematic in the portrayal of a woman whose job is to intellectualize emotions.
"She has this awesome courage to detach herself from her own drama and not judge herself," says Williams. "There is this constant scientific process going on, this psychoanalysis that never stops."