I was late for the theater, a particular and long-held fear of mine. But Mesa Arts Center was celebrating its 10th anniversary with an outdoor carnival (because how better to honor an arts center than with a frybread truck and a Tilt-A-Whirl?), which gobbled up all the parking on either side of the facility where the play I was seeing, Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of Hysteria, was taking place.
Forced to park a half-mile away and then plow through a nonstop street party, I missed the first two minutes of Patrick Walsh's staging of Terry Johnson's peculiar masterpiece, creeping in after curtain and taking the only empty seat in the house, behind the world's tallest and widest man. I leaned far to my left for more than an hour, in order to take in as much of Act One as I possibly could, and the resulting crick in my neck was worth it, because this production is dynamite.
Set in 1938, the year of Sigmund Freud's death, Hysteria imagines the meeting between Freud and surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, who famously visited the dying neurologist one afternoon that year. Freud, having recently fled the Nazis, is sick with cancer of the jaw. His morphine high informs the events we're witness to, leaving us wondering how much of the story, presented largely as farce, is actually happening. A woman named Jessica arrives, demanding after a fashion to know why Freud recanted his theory that hysteria was the result of childhood sexual trauma. She demands that the good doctor, whose own physician is also visiting, reenact her mother's therapy sessions with him. But first, because this is a farce about Freud, she removes all of her clothing and locks herself in a water closet.
The genius of Johnson's play is its constant and very deliberate shift in tone, presumably meant to illustrate the madness with which Freud concerned himself. This conceit might sink a production of Hysteria enacted by lesser players, as it requires a cast — particularly a leading lady — who can perform and respond to both broad slapstick and stagy melodrama, often in the same scene.
Fortunately for his audience, Mr. Walsh has assembled such a cast. Beau Heckman is fabulous as Freud, both fearful of and besotted by his own knowledge of the emotional world. Allison Sell deserves special mention for her emotionally compelling portrayal of a woman who may be mad or just especially clever. In an always-over-the-top interpretation of Dalí, William Wilson is deliciously absurd; in the play's quietest role, Clay Sanderson manages to keep up without either mugging or vanishing into the scenery.
I watched Act Two from a better seat, snagged from someone who was foolish enough to leave at intermission (perhaps preferring the bumper cars in the parking lot to Johnson's complex comedy), right next to a nice woman from Long Island named Peggy. As I exited the theater, Peggy, who'd noticed me scribbling notes in the dark, whispered, "I can't wait to read what you thought of this play." Here you go, Margaret: I loved it.
Hysteria continues through Saturday, September 19, at Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Mesa St. in Mesa. Call 602-535-1202 or visit www.swshakespeare.org.