Clash of the (psychoanalytical) titans

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Sabina, at the New Jewish Theatre, tells the story of a deeply troubled Russian Jewish woman, who became one of the first patients of Carl Gustav Jung before going on to become a respected analyst in her own right. She was eventually murdered by the Nazis in 1942.

While undergoing analysis and therapy with Jung, she became his muse and lover. Their relationship also became a factor in the estrangement between Jung and Sigmund Freud, the two founding Titans of psychoanalysis.

ADVERTISEMENT
MERS Goodwill ad


The story of Sabina Spielrein and her remarkable influence on the two major figures in the founding period of psychoanalysis is compellingly told in Willy Holtzman’s brainy, carefully researched script. The four-person cast is directed with sensitivity and skill by Annamaria Pileggi, who said, “prior to reading Willy Holtzman’s play, I had never heard of Sabina Spielrein. Now, having worked on it, I must confess that I am somewhat obsessed with this remarkable woman.”

Sabina Spielrein is portrayed convincingly and empathetically by Leslie Zang, who conveys the full constellation of intellectual, emotional and spiritual energy of this remarkable woman. Carl Pierson as Carl Jung expresses Jung’s losing battle to maintain proper boundaries with his brilliant, mysterious and seductive patient. Kevin Beyer as Doctor Freud achieves the looks and mannerisms of his character, his arrogance, his obsession with his role as the founder of a major modern system of thought, and his ambivalent feelings towards his hand-picked successor Jung. Justin Rincker plays Ludwig Binswanger, a young physician at the Burgholzi Hospital in Zurich, who failed in his own valiant efforts to penetrate Sabina’s deep armor of psychosis.

Sabina was written by St. Louis-born playwright Holtzman, whose 2004 play, Hearts, told of his father’s struggles with post-traumatic stress syndrome in the aftermath of being a liberator of Buchenwald. A poignant major personal connection to the current play is noted in the program. Sabina is dedicated to the memory of Dora Elizabeth Holtzman Magrath, niece of Holtzman, “a beautiful, talented young woman who suffered from severe depression, not unlike the title character of this play, Sabina Spielrein.” Magrath took her own life, at the age of 22, last February, “after valiantly fighting her own demons.”

Professional therapists, whether they are Freudians or anti-Freudians, Jungians, or advocates of pharmacological treatments as opposed to talk therapy will find much to interest them in Sabina. During her psychotic musings, Sabina tells mythic tales, based on the operas of Wagner or the life and martyrdom of Joan of Ark. She expresses a longing for a rescuing “gallant prince to grace her lips.” One can find elements of Jung’s use of myths and highly spiritualized tales and the universal subconscious in Sabina’s musings, which later evolve into her own distinct theories. She contributed much to bolster both Freud’s and Jung’s system of depth psychology, which assumes that behavior is to be explained in terms of unconscious practices.

Freud was adamant in his insistence that therapists must not become romantically or erotically involved with their patients. As Jung became increasingly infatuated with Sabina, the hospital staff and eventually his wife became aware of his affair. Freud and Jung were both aware of the phenomenon of transference, by which the patient becomes attached to the analyst as a parent substitute, and counter-transference, in which the analyst becomes emotionally attached to the patient. If the analyst acts on those feelings and becomes romantically and/or sexually involved with the patient, it destroys the trust and boundaries, which must be maintained for the relationship to produce healthy results.

As portrayed by Leslie Zang, Sabina does not become a “victim” to the giant egos of either Jung or Freud. She helps the two pioneer analysts prove that their techniques can affect cures among psychotics, not just neurotics. Not only does Sabina experience a remarkable recovery, she becomes a successful medical doctor and analyst who eventually ran a highly respected school in her native Rostov, Russia.

In 1984, Aldo Carotenutu published the book, A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud, the untold story of the woman who changed the early history of psychoanalysis. The basic facts in that book are vividly fleshed out in the NJT production.

Much of the story in the play is told through letters exchanged between Freud and Jung, which reflect the growing tensions in their relationship. Some may find the script overly wordy and intellectualized, but in the early days of the 20th century, that is precisely the way highly educated people expressed themselves in writing and speech.

The production is bolstered by the excellent scenic design by Dunsi Dai, lighting design by Glenn Dunn and authentic-looking costume design by Valleri Dillard.

‘Sabina’

WHEN: Through Feb. 15

WHERE: Clayton High School Little Theatre, 2 Mark Twain Circle

HOW MUCH: $30-$26

MORE INFO: Call 314-442-3283 or www.newjewishtheatre.org