Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review by Irv Rikon: The Comfort of Darkness at the Caldwell Theatre

Vienna, Austria, 1777. We meet Dr. Anton Mesmer as he attempts with his newly developed technique of "Animal Magnetism" to restore the sight of Maria-Theresa von Paradis, blind from the time she was three years old. From that flows the plot of Joel Gross' play, The Comfort of Darkness, being given its World Premiere production at THE CALDWELL THEATRE in Boca Raton.

The word "mesmerize" derives from Dr. Mesmer. Defined by my dictionary as "hypnotize" or "enthrall," in Mr. Gross' drama, the doctor does both. He hypnotizes the beautiful concert pianist, his patient, and she sees. She becomes so enthralled that she falls in loves with him, and he with her. But Dr. Mesmer has two big problems: His medical technique is controversial and unaccepted by the establishment of his day. His romantic technique is also controversial, for it has greater success. The doctor, it seems, is something of a womanizer.

The playwright follows these two paths somewhat unevenly. The professional aspect of Mesmer's life is emphasized in Act One. The consequences of his love life become the main subject of Act Two. Hypnotism and affecting a cure for a medical condition by that means are interesting and unusual theater subjects. The love affair is more conventional and unfortunately ultimately dominates the work. Also, a viewer at first likes the doctor for his bold theories but grows rather more to dislike him as the play moves along. Maria-Theresa is probably just as complicated a character as he; she is a professional pianist, a contemporary of Mozart, who is soon to perform in public. But Mesmer alternately blindfolds her and removes the blindfold -- She finds comfort in "The power of darkness" -- and we don't really know what motivates her to perform. Isn't she "driven" to do her thing the same way as Mesmer is driven to do his? Surely, there's much more substance to her being than the playwright reveals.

Onstage, we don't see Mesmer hypnotizing. We do see him waving his arms (animal magnetism) at her head prior to removing the blindfold. I think that the production misses something in not showing the act of hypnotizing, which certainly must have startled 18th-century people. Even today, if you've ever watched hypnotists at work, somehow putting people to sleep or in a dreamlike state and following his commands as he might give them, it's a fascinating sight. The drama of that is lost here. As part of my personal background, I was an eye doctor and happily helped people to gain better vision. But if vision is really poor and then suddenly corrected, the patient is thoroughly startled: a whole new experience is opening up for the individual. Some are very pleased by the change. Some are terribly, terribly fearful: The world of the imagination was safer than the real world. Again, that sense of challenge and Maria-Theresa's reaction to it is so understated as to be almost non-existent.

This is a good play about an interesting time and some of the people in it. But I'm positive it will be somewhat revised and improved, and my sneaking suspicion is it will make an even better shot-on-location movie. The four-person cast is sound. Stevie Ray Dallimore as Dr. Mesmer is believable. Kenneth Kay as Dr. Otto von Stoerk, Mesmer's close friend but also his severest critic, is ideal. Jessalyn Maguire as Maria-Theresa is effective, but alas for her, the role does not allow her to rise to dramatic heights. That largely holds true for Jane Courtney's Franzi, a rival love for Dr. Mesmer's affections.

Tim Bennett's set design is impeccable as always. The costumes designed by Alberto Arroyo are models of their kind. They should be award-winning. Clive Cholerton's direction is well constructed.

As noted, the production closes September 5. For tickets and additional information, telephone 877-245-7432 or online at www.caldwelltheatre.com).

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