Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Imperfect Affair at Caldwell Theatre

It’s not a good sign when I don’t know quite what to say after seeing a play.
At least I know what the title, “The Comfort of Darkness,” means. This world premiere production of a play by Joel Gross continues through Sept. 5 at Caldwell Theatre Company, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton.
Concert pianist Maria-Theresa von Paradis (Jessalyn Maguire) has been blind since age 3. Blindness has been no impediment to Maria-Theresa’s career. She can read Braille as fast as sighted people can read a book. If anything, the darkness has been a comfort zone into which she can retreat.
Dr. Anton Mesmer (Stevie Ray Dallimore) thinks otherwise. He sees Maria-Theresa’s blindness as a curable mental affliction, and he believes he can cure it through “animal magnetism,” which is his term for an early form of hypnosis.
Maria-Theresa von Paradis and Dr. Anton Mesmer were real-life figures who lived in Vienna in 1777. Mesmer’s name inspired the word “mesmerize;” to put someone under a kind of spell.
Playwright Joel Gross, who visited Boca Raton to consult with director Clive Cholerton on the production, used the story of doctor and patient as a what-if springboard for an unlikely but perhaps inevitable romance.
Thereby perhaps lurks the problem. Broadway actor Robert Cuccioli (“Jekyll and Hyde”) was originally billed as star of the Caldwell production.
For whatever reason Cuccioli bowed out, and now Dr. Anton Mesmer is played by Stevie Ray Dallimore.
Dallimore is a handsome devil, but looks are less important to this role than personal magnetism. Mesmer literally has the power to probe into a person’s psyche and change that person’s mind. Despite dramatic finger-pointing flourishes, Dallimore just doesn’t quite radiate that power.
Jessalyn Maguire has a delicate, fragile beauty that is perfect for Maria-Theresa von Paradis. Though she is only 22, Maria-Theresa is a confident and secure woman who is quite comfortable with her disability.
I think the playwright’s point is that some people use disability as a shield from deeper emotion. When the doctor messes with the patient’s cozy little world, he creates more problems than he solves.
The real Dr. Mesmer died poor and discredited. In this play his best friend, Dr. Otto von Stoerk is the voice of reason and bridge between the medical establishment and Mesmer’s more far-out theories.
It’s a rather thankless role for Ken Kay, who was a stalwart at Caldwell for many years, and is now is executive director of the Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training.
Even more thankless is the role of Dr. Mesmer’s patient Francisca Oesterlin, played by Jane Cortney as one of the doctor’s earlier conquest/cures.
I guess the heart of the problem is that Dr. Mesmer is a quack, and his speeches sound like so much poppycock. Why any woman would fall under this guy’s spell is the real mystery of this ornate, beautifully-costumed and designed but oddly unmoving period piece.
Tickets are $38 and $45. Call 561-241-7432 or visit