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Peter Strauss in Sabina
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Sigmund Freud may have been right to insist that, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar -- but, in his case, such simplicity doesn't apply. For Freud, who's one of the four characters in Primary Stages' revival of Willy Holtzman's 1996 Sabina, a cigar was the suicide weapon of choice; after all, the mental health pioneer eventually succumbed to cancer of the jaw. Furthermore, as wielded by Peter Strauss as Freud in this review of early psychoanalytic developments, a cigar increasingly looks like the phallic symbol that it's often claimed to be. It seems meant to represent the invasive nature of men toward women, echoes of which were heard across the land in Bill Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.

Watching Sabina, you may begin to think that Freud had good reason to fob off the "cigar is just a cigar" proposition: He was hiding something behind it. Moreover, you may feel that Carl Jung, also a character here in his friendly-with-Freud phase, has something about which to keep mum -- and not just the symbolic implications of a lit or unlit cigar. As Holtzman sets out the relationship that Jung (Victor Slezak) had with Sabina Spielrein (Marin Ireland), the first patient he psychoanalyzed, the seems also to be dealing with the earliest instance of psychiatric malpractice.

Jung eventually began an affair with Sabina that's usually offered as one of the reasons for his February, 1913 rift with Freud. You see, Sabina was deeply fascinated -- even motivated -- by mythology. She was especially fond of Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelungen. (Being a Jew devoted to Wagner was more fodder for her analysis.) As she advanced from Jung's patient to his student, she was likely influential in the evolution of the seminal thinker's theory of the collective unconscious, about which Jung and Freud disagreed. (I refer to Sabina by her first name and Freud and Jung by their surnames only because she lent her first name to the play's title.) For Sabina's participation in this aspect of the history of psychology and for her own psychoanalytic work, she has earned a place in medical history, whereas a similar doctor-patient alliance nowadays would probably result in nothing more nor less than a lawsuit and a physician being drummed out of the profession.

All of these aspects shimmer throughout Holtzman's play, in which he takes an intriguing case history and uses it to make observations and float implications about the relationship between and among Freud, Jung, and Spielrein. Jung is in contact with Freud on the subject of Spielrein's analysis only via letter at first and then via increased face-to-face contact. Holtzman suggests the effect that sexual longings have on intellectual adventures; not only that, he even gets around to implying that the growth of psychoanalytic thought may be determined, at least in part, by national character. (Freud was Austrian, of course, and Jung was Swiss.)

The action in Sabina isn't much different from that of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, in which a scientist conducting an experiment selects a specimen and goes on to prove a contention beyond his most extreme hope, finding himself more than a little in thrall to his laboratory mouse. Holtzman's Jung initially concentrates on getting Sabina to speak, then becomes fascinated by her interest in myths and the importance of storytelling. Freud, who steps in from the wings to recite his letters during the earlier sections of the play, eventually meets and befriends Jung, anoints him as his successor, and then -- because of the divergent directions in which their studies take them -- reneges on the offer and cuts off communication.

Marin Ireland and Victor Slezak in Sabina
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Holtzman's main purpose in this four-hander -- the fourth character is Ludwig Binswänger (Adam Stein), one of Jung's Swiss protégées -- is establishing the role that Sabina played in both the academic and private lives of Jung and Freud. He deems it pivotal -- and so does she. "[Freud] sees that I am the bridge between his work and yours," Sabina says to Jung at one of her typically impassioned moments. This is the kind of play that professionals attend and then take exception to on any number of factual and psychological grounds: Some audience members will appreciate Holtzman's depiction of Freud and Jung as only moderately mature narcissists who see themselves and their successes in Sabina, while others will wonder if Sabina isn't receiving too much credit for influencing the men's thoughts and behavior.

It sure makes for hot stuff, though -- and Marin Ireland helps make it hotter. One of the town's busiest actors, Ireland as Sabina is sexy in both earthy and refined ways. Beautiful one minute (especially in the gown that costumer designer Michael Sharpe has given her for a soirée scene) and plain the next, she finds Sabina's disturbed intelligence and her practitioner's acumen. Undoubtedly, director Ethan McSweeny helped her to do so, just as he surely helped Victor Slezak as Jung, Peter Strauss as Freud, and Adam Stein as the quietly wise Binswänger to characterize these complicated, enigmatic figures -- all of this on a set that Mark Wendland has designed as a fin-de-siecle factory.

"Talk is no longer cheap," Binswänger says in a reference to psychoanalysis as the talking cure. Sabina demonstrates that it isn't cheap and that, freighted as it is with undertones and undercurrents, it also isn't simple.

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