November 19, 2010
Moving family drama
TOVA G. KORNFELD
The Jewish mother/daughter relationship is complex. Imagine how much more complicated it would be if your mother were a renowned psychoanalyst.
United Players has undertaken the task of presenting the powerful, intellectual Mrs. Klein, a play with three female Jewish characters: mother, daughter and protégé, all of whom share psychoanalysis as their professional background. Playwright Nicholas Wright uses the biographical theatre genre to fictionalize accounts of these real people.
Melanie Klein, an Austrian, moved to London in the 1920s at the invitation of the British Psychoanalytical Society. Her work was recognized as an extension of that of Sigmund Freud although his daughter, Anna, considered her a heretic. Ultimately, psychoanalysis broke down into three schools: Freudian, Kleinian and the Middle Group. Klein’s main contribution to her branch was that children as young as two or three could be analyzed and understood by observing their play and interpreting it. Unable to attain the medical education she desired because of university quotas on Jews, Klein was self-taught, developing her theories through work with her own children, spending more than 300 hours analyzing them. Her son, Hans, died tragically at a young age. Her daughter, Melitta, as a professional colleague, was critical of her mother’s theories and aligned herself with Klein’s most influential critic, Edward Glover.
The play “is a long night’s journey into day,” one evening in the spring of 1934. It opens in Mrs. Klein’s study as she hires a young refugee, Paula, from Hitler’s Berlin to edit her latest work. Klein is en route to Budapest to attend the funeral of her son. Paula stays behind to begin work and Melitta meets her when she enters the study to find a letter she has written to her mother, which suggests that Hans committed suicide and Klein was to blame. Through the women’s conversations, we discover Melitta’s resentment of her mother’s childhood analyses, her perceived inability to escape her mother’s shadow, her sense of never having received the maternal love she so desperately sought and her suspicion that Paula is trying to replace her as Klein’s daughter.
When Klein returns, having decided not to go to the funeral, she walks into her study to find the two women wrestling with a set of three filing drawers, neatly labeled Id, Ego and Superego, as they search for the letter. Eventually, Klein reads the letter and is overcome with guilt and grief.
I found parts of the play painful to watch, as mother and daughter hurl cruel epithets at each other, replete with references to various parts of the human anatomy, referenced in traditional psychoanalysis. The physicality of the scene where Klein throws a glass of wine in Melitta’s face and attacks her, while Melitta declares hatred of her mother, is numbing. The final scene is haunting. As one critic wrote, the audience journeys into a “womb with a view” of the universal parent/child power struggle.
Joan Bryans is superb in Klein’s dialogue-heavy role. Her interpretation of this brilliant woman is impressive as the role shifts between concerned mother and detached therapist. Trina McClure as Paula provides the appropriate poignancy for the protégé and Alison James Raine delivers a gut-wrenching performance as Melitta. The shabby chic set, period outfits and soft lighting provide the atmosphere.
Charles Siegel ably guides this compelling drama. In an interview with the Independent, he noted that the play deals with one of the darkest periods in the life of Klein, who “used her considerable gifts to offer the world a deeper understanding of what it is to be a human being,” and yet failed miserably as a mother. He stated that, while psychoanalysis was the “religion” of these three women, their Judaism manifested itself in their mannerisms and attitudes toward world events and their place in the world. He said that Klein’s work is still relevant, as a recent symposium in Seattle on her theories confirms.
Mrs. Klein runs at the Jericho Arts Centre until Dec. 5. For more information, call 604-224-8007, ext. 2, or visit unitedplayers.com.
Tova G. Kornfeld is a local writer and lawyer.