Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director of Portland Stage, admits the premise of the theatre’s latest production, “Sabina,” might not immediately resonate with audiences.
A catatonic woman heals herself in a mental institution and becomes a psychoanalyst while developing a romantic relationship with one of her own doctors, Carl Jung, who shares her story and theories with a contemporary, Sigmund Freud.
But Stewart insists the musical has something for everyone.
“Seeing him in the rehearsal room, I was blown away…and I can be a harsh critic,” she said.
Portland Stage will present the world premiere of “Sabina”, starting Friday and running through May 22. The production will also be available for streaming from May 18 to June 5.
Originally written as a drama by Willy Holtzman, who splits his time between New York and Maine, “Sabina” was adapted into a musical by composer Louise Beach and lyricist Darrah Cloud.
Holtzman, whose work has been featured at Portland Stage several times, said it’s hard for him to think of “Sabina” as anything other than a musical now.
“It has to be different because it’s a different form, but the songs really became the core,” he said.
The musical focuses on the real-life story of Sabina Spielrein, a 19-year-old Russian who was institutionalized after her sister’s death and met, among others, aspiring psychoanalyst Jung. When she went to medical school, their relationship continued and formed the basis of part of his approach to psychology, which he shared with Freud.
The story is sometimes sad and heavy, but there are also comic and poignant moments. The music has a classical touch and the songs are almost operatic, corresponding to the period of the early 20th century.
Anyone who’s taken Psychology 101 probably knows Freud and Jung, but few know Spielrein, even though his theories were equally groundbreaking.
“The influence this woman had on us without us knowing it was huge,” Cloud said.
Spielrein is not the first woman whose achievements have been overshadowed by men in her field, although designers are increasingly correcting this trend.
The musical was supposed to premiere in spring 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic. The entire creative and technical team that worked last week to put the finishing touches on production said the anticipation was heightened.
“There is such a feeling of gratitude that we all need to do theater again,” said co-director Daniella Topol.
For Beach, who first came up with the idea of setting Holtzman’s piece to music (she actually credits her husband), the process has been emotional.
“It’s a thrill beyond anything I’ve experienced,” she said.
Danilo Gambini, co-director, spoke last week minutes before gathering the cast and others on stage. The lighting and sound teams made adjustments as the five cast members walked around the set and handled the props for the first time.
“It’s a special moment where you can see all the elements together,” he said.
As audiences just returned from two years of cancellations and disruptions, the creative team behind “Sabina” recognized there was a risk in creating a show no one had seen before.
“With an established coin, someone did it and made it work,” Stewart said.
But Gambini said one of his main goals is to make sure everyone who comes to the show is “in good hands”.
“It should feel like a first date and a whole relationship in the span of two hours,” he said. “You should feel supported whether you know anything about this or not.”
The creative team also includes Tony Award-winning lighting designer Christopher Akerlind who lives in the area, sound designer Charles Coes and music director Brafdley Vieth. Professional actors are all part of the Actors Equity Association. The musical score will be interpreted by a string quartet, accompanied by an oboist and a pianist, conducted by the orchestrations of August Eriksmoen.
Stewart said that, more than anything, the cast and crew were thrilled to share “Sabina” with live audiences.
“I think we need to relearn how to be together as a group, and things like theater are a great way to do that,” she said.