Duchland … Cynthia Hyer
Joseph Guillotin … James Shelby
Jean Sylvan Bailly … Tom Troupe
Lavoisier … Gary Neal Johnson
Edouard … Will Wiloughy
Michelle Duchland … Milly Hands
Marie … Brenda Mason
Marquis … Gary Holcombe
With: Michael Linsley Rapport, Woody Bengoa, Nicolas Gray, Chris Johnson, Michael Mastrocesare.
Anew play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee has to be a significant legit event and, considering their long association and plentiful successes, one of which much is expected. They have turned, for this newest play, to a little-remembered but significant chapter in medical history, the trial of Dr. Franz Mesmer, the father of hypnotism. Based upon the book by Norman Cousins and peopled with historically prominent figures, “Whisper in the Mind” is an absorbing and potent drama that should see many more productions.
Lawrence and Lee turned to longtime friend and associate George Keathly, artistic director of the Missouri Repertory Theater, for this first production. He has brought in renowned costumer/designer Robert Fletcher, assembled a cast of proven talents and embellished the play with the established, sumptuous trappings of the Rep.
Fletcher’s set uses the full extent of the big stage with only essential furnishings to give an open, airy impression of near-timelessness. Costumes are carefully authentic, and the combination easily reflects Paris and Passy of 1784 .
Mesmer (Daniel Oreskes) has come from Vienna and established a Paris clinic where he practices a revolutionary medical treatment. He claims that by using a magnetism of the Earth and waving his hands about the patient he can invigorate the “universal fluids of the body,” which in combination with hypnotic powers can relieve pain and mental distress.
His theory has created a wave of new thought, especially among the 18 th-century intellectuals who fancy an “enlightenment” movement afoot. His apparent success so sweeps Paris that an alarmed medical profession demands of the king an “impartial” investigation. In compliance, the king appoints the most eminent scientists of the day and, to head the commission, an initially reluctant Ben Franklin (Theodore Swetz), then U.S. ambassador to France.
The commission must determine whether Mesmer is, as he claims, a medical man and healer or a charlatan, as claimed by the medical profession. Mesmer is especially berated by Dr. Guillotin (James Shelby), an eminent doctor on the commission.
The commission also has a doubting Thomas in Jean Sylvan Bailly (Tom Troupe), a prominent astronomer of the day, while the famous chemist Lavoisier (Gary Neal Johnson) becomes a Mesmer supporter. Franklin is, well, not taking a stand and just trying to find what all the fuss is about.
His position is complicated by his much younger friend, Mme. Duchland (Cynthia Hyer), whose 18-year-old daughter, a Mesmer patient, is finding relief from severe sleeplessness and nightmares about a blood-bathed Paris.
At Duchland’s urging, Franklin agrees to the chair, although he is unaware that the daughter, Michelle (Milly Hands), is being treated by Mesmer. Hyer, as Mme. Duchland, creates a dramatic highlight when, outraged at Guillotin, she rails at him about his insensitivity and the uselessness of his practice of bleeding patients. If that’s historically true, she was a century ahead of her time.
The second act achieves dramatic heights when Mesmer defends his practice before the commission. Berated by Guillotin and badgered by Bailly, Oreskes gives a powerful performance in reply and is all but believable.
To the charge that he could use hypnotism to prey upon women, Mesmer denies that moral fiber can be pierced by hypnotism and proceeds to a demonstration with Marie, a woman of the streets (and a patient), and Mme. Duchland.
Under a hypnotic spell, Marie willingly takes off her shoes as ordered and removes her clothing until stopped by Mesmer; Mme. Duchland takes off her shoes but rebels at the command to remove her clothing.
The cast, having a meaty subject with which to work and bigger-than-life characters, is uniformly good. Oreskes, with sonorous voice and flowing mane, is bombastic and assured as Mesmer. Swetz is lower-keyed as Franklin, attempting to keep the commission on an even course while torn between Mme. Duchland’s urgings and the emotional charges of Guillotin and Bailly.
Keathly has kept the pace upbeat throughout, and the two hours pass swiftly. The work does more than justice to an important piece of history.