'Mrs. Klein' at Arena bristles with energy


Nicholas Wright's "Mrs. Klein" contains several references to the epiphany-like moment in psychotherapy when things suddenly "slot into place."

Largely because Wright's play -- based on the late psychoanalyst Melanie Klein -- has a traditional dramatic structure, with a traditional beginning, middle and end, things tend to "slot into place" a bit too neatly.

But "Mrs. Klein," which is receiving its East Coast premiere at Washington's Arena Stage, bristles with so much intellectual energy, the playwright can be forgiven for occasionally sacrificing verisimilitude for the exigencies of his craft.

And he knows his craft. Just as psychoanalysis often involves unraveling mysteries, this British playwright weaves mysteries into his play.

Klein was a follower of Freud, though her controversial theories of child development emphasized the significance of the mother over the father. The play takes place during a long night in Klein's London home in 1934, after she learns her son Hans has died in a hiking accident.

The central mystery in the first act concerns a letter in which her daughter -- and professional rival -- Melitta insists the death was a suicide, provoked by Hans' feelings about his mother. When the play begins, Klein has received but not opened the letter.

In the second act, the circumstances surrounding Hans' death become clear, but the action focuses on the literal manifestation of what analysts call "transference" as Klein's young assistant, Paula, vies to become her surrogate daughter.

Halo Wines has a showy assignment as Klein, and she overdoes it at times -- though she also convinces us Klein was a self-centered individual who enjoyed an audience. Her audience in the play is represented by Paula, who is portrayed with impressive insight by Jurian Hughes as a woman simultaneously in awe of Klein and in deep need of her professional and maternal attention. As Melitta, Pamela Nyberg hints at the eccentricities for which her character became known, without allowing them to rule her performance, and her skirmishes with her mother are charged.

"Mrs. Klein" marks the directorial return of Zelda Fichandler, who left Arena last season after 40 years as producing director. Fichandler has said she once hoped to be a psychoanalyst, which may explain why she lets Wright's script linger longer than necessary. But most of the time, the production glows with a battle of wits that includes a welcome touch of humor. "No hard feelings?" Melitta asks her mother at one point. "Not on a conscious level," Mrs. K. replies. "Mrs. Klein" may be too pat for real life, but as theater, it's a heck of a satisfying session.

'Mrs. Klein'

When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. Through June 14.

Where: Arena Stage, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue Southwest, Washington.

Tickets: $19-$34.

Call: (202) 488-3300.


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