Wilhelm Reich, M.D., died in prison in 1957. It was an ignoble passing for the brilliant therapist whose early breakthroughs in the field of psychiatric medicine made him heir apparent to ur-shrink Sigmund Freud. Revisionist studies into the origins of life only advanced Reich's sterling reputation in the scientific community, but that reputation was short-lived. In the 1930s, Reich discovered or at least claimed to discover a new form of energy: orgone. This energy, a purely sexual force derived from the cosmic orgasm, was, in the opinion of Reich and his acolytes, a universal panacea. It could stop war and cure cancer. It could make Mother Nature herself wet with desire. Not so surprisingly, Reich was rechristened a crackpot.
Adam Kraar's new play, Storm in the Iron Box, is a fact-laden but fictional account of Reich's increasingly bizarre struggles with the FDA, which led to his ultimate imprisonment. In doing so, it raises bold questions about just how free Americans really are and circumscribes the ongoing struggle between scientific progress and prevailing moral codes.
Kraar's writing is more than solid, and his sneaky way of integrating screwball comedy into an otherwise straight biographical study is genuinely inspired. But Storm in the Iron Box is plagued by an identity crisis that begs for rethinking and resolution.
Vacillating between the complex social criticizing of Bertolt Brecht's 20th-century masterpiece The Life of Galileo (the play it most closely resembles) and the fetid Robin Williams vehicle Patch Adams, the show is both epiphanic and cringe-inducing. We are shown an unquestionably brilliant scientist whose research is evaluated by legal rather than scientific principles, mirroring the plight of poor Galileo whose heretical but accurate belief that the Earth revolved around the sun landed him before the Inquisition. We are also treated to a tastefully "quirky," rather one-dimensional Reich, who even in madness remains genial and spews tired Hollywood aphorisms frontloaded with commonplace pap like "Never be afraid " and "As long as you can dream , " blah, blah, blah. However, as our current political situation harkens back to the McCarthy era and thoughts out of step with blind patriotism are deemed dangerous by the powers-that-be, Storm provides audiences with more than enough meat to chew on, and its hypnotic appeal demonstrates just how hungry we are for such a tasty dish.
As is often the case with Playwrights' Forum, no expense has been spared. Spared execution, that is. But ultimately the play triumphs on its own strengths, in spite of a set that redefines bare bones and a mixed bag of actors whose abilities vary from limited to lush.
David Perry makes a compelling Reich, though at times his performance becomes so feather-light you expect him to break into a song and dance. Mykel A. Pennington's work as Reich's devoted if not exactly traditional wife is equally strong, if a bit monotonous, and Phillip Joel Anderson is appropriately Spielbergian as Reich's adoring son Thomas. Lisa Sanchez, who relocated from San Francisco only a year ago, is an exciting addition to the Memphis theater community. As Pauline McBrindy, a fictional Fed whose sexual attraction to Reich is at odds with her own rigid sense of morality, she is positively spellbinding. Every internal conflict she faces can be read in her posture, her eyes, or the way she shifts her weight from foot to foot. It's impossible to tell throughout much of the play if she is going to betray Reich or save him, and her combination of suppressed eroticism and puritanical resolve creates the vast majority of the play's suspense.
Storm in the Iron Box is at TheatreWorks through March 9th.
Joel Paley and Marvin Laird's musical Ruthless! is wrong in every way a musical can be wrong and so, so right on. It comes highly recommended to anyone who has ever confessed (as does one of the show's characters), "I hate musicals." Combining characters and plot elements from All About Eve, The Bad Seed, and (Tim Sampson, are you sitting?) Mommie Dearest, it functions as an antidote for tired old shows like Gypsy, A Chorus Line, and Annie all of which it savagely skewers.
Ruthless! tells a terrible tale of talent, yearning, and mass murder. And the murderess, 8-year-old Tina Denmark (as essayed by a spunky Ashley Wieronski), couldn't be more adorable.
Director Michael Duggan, who gave us last season's wonderful Zombie Prom, has proved once again he is Memphis' king of camp. Randall Hartzog's surprisingly subtle drag interpretation of the seldom subtle Joan Crawford is a joy. Carla McDonald's Stepford mom turned Broadway bitch is too funny. And Ann Marie Hall's pitch-perfect Phyllis Diller impression is alone worth double the cost of admission.
Ruthless! is at Circuit Playhouse through April 7th.