Duet for One | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Duet for One 

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Touchstone Theatre

Just before going to see Duet for One, I finished an extraordinary book called Vital Lies, Simple Truths, by Daniel Goleman. In the book, Goleman explains how we all deceive ourselves in order to alleviate the pain of anxiety. The unconscious mind, he says, filters out distressing information, allowing the conscious mind to form "schemas," or mental models of reality, that interpret facts in a pleasing light. One woman, for example, calmly described her turbulent adolescence. Her mother often threw things at her, including a butcher knife that caused a gash requiring ten stitches, and her father once tried to choke her for dating a boy he didn't like. Yet, the woman concluded, without a trace of irony, "they are very concerned about me." The woman's unconscious mind, unable to repress such vivid, upsetting memories, still managed to keep the obvious interpretation from her conscious mind, allowing her to believe that she was the beloved child of normal, affectionate parents.

The implication of Goleman's lucid analysis is clear--the censorship of our perceptions by the unconscious leads to distorted and often bizarre interpretations of reality. While these distortions are supposed to alleviate pain--and often do, for a while--they also keep us from the truth, leaving us prone to depression, neurosis, and other forms of psychic distress. The only way to break this cycle is through self-analysis, which exposes the mischief of the unconscious mind.

The book turned out to be ideal preparation for Duet. If I hadn't read it, I wouldn't have been all fired up about psychoanalysis, which, in Goleman's view, is an essential weapon in the battle against cruelty, evil, and injustice. And if I hadn't been fired up about psychoanalysis, I would have been far less patient with the pomposity and the pat answers provided by Tom Kempinski in his play.

Or is it a mere case study? Duet, set entirely in a psychiatrist's office, compresses the analysis of a young woman into a couple of hours. This is a hopeless task, akin to reenacting the entire Vietnam war onstage, and sure enough, Duet is superficial, simplistic, and just plain silly at times.

But Kempinski's motive is honorable: he has provided a glimpse, at least, of what goes on during analysis. Many people believe that psychoanalysis is for crazy people, and that seeking such help is inherently shameful. At the very least, Kempinski demonstrates that the process amounts to simple reality testing. By asking questions and encouraging patients to articulate their feelings, the psychiatrist helps them expose the inner contradictions and the self-deceit inherent in their "schemas," and that is the first step toward the truth.

The patient in this case is Stephanie Abrahams, a famous concert violinist who, at the age of 28, has contracted multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease that has destroyed her ability to play the violin. Naturally, she's feeling a little "low," as she explains to Dr. Feldmann, but she's trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Right. With a few deftly aimed questions, Feldmann slices through her self-satisfied complacency. For starters, she discovers her unconscious belief that losing her musical ability will cause her to lose her husband, a famous composer obsessed with music. Then, thanks to a suggestion made by the doctor, she recognizes that her brave response to her illness mimics her mother's brave response to an overbearing husband who forced her to abandon her own promising musical career. Also, she experiences the full hatred she feels for her father, who, after his wife's death, tried to force Stephanie, when she was just nine, to give up her musical studies.

These discoveries arouse classic resistance in the young woman. She snarls at the doctor, belittles his abilities, and accuses him of destroying her plans for the future. Then she slides into a suicidal depression, neglecting herself and engaging in degrading activities. That arouses the doctor's wrath, and elicits a passionate speech about the purpose of psychoanalysis:

"We must give battle to these dark forces [of the unconscious]," he tells her. "I am asking you, or rather I am telling you, Miss Abrahams, to add your weight to mine in this fight, and not to come in here with childish displays of your sordid giving in to this enemy, dragging yourself and your self-esteem into the dirt in front of me, because all I see is the slippery slope to despair, and you will get off it, you hear me! You will get off it and you will fight beside me and that's it, you hear?"

Whew! Not exactly the type of inscrutable response typical of a devoted Freudian. In fact, Feldmann's speech, despite its passion and eloquence, is one of the most implausible moments of the play, but who cares? Kempinski is trying to dramatize the arduous process of self-discovery. Sure, he cuts a few corners, and streamlines the battle, but this is a play written by someone still excited by the thrill of insight. Like Goleman, he recognizes the importance of exposing unconscious delusions, and his zeal to spread the word makes the play charming, despite its shortcomings.

The Touchstone Theatre's production, directed by Sandra Grand, features two young, inexperienced actors who give moving performances even though they seem to be pushing themselves beyond their ability. As Stephanie, Adrianne Cury is like a well-trained but immature violinist--she keeps time and hits all the right notes, but isn't quite accomplished enough yet to add the nuance and emotion of a virtuoso. And Clay Rouse, struggling with a difficult German accent, stumbled over his lines a few times on opening night, but still gave a convincing performance as a man several years older than himself.

So who would want to see this? Well, it's ideal for anyone contemplating psychoanalysis. In fact, the play could serve as promotional material for the American Psychoanalytic Association.

And those who have been through the ordeal can enjoy the catharsis that comes from watching Stephanie trample resistance and repression on her way to glorious insight. Sure, it's as implausible as a play about the Marines winning the war in Vietnam without losing a single soldier, but there are plenty of frustrated vets who would enjoy watching that.


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