Mind Games

Joanne Greenberg's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden was published in 1964 as fiction, but in fact described the author's own teenage struggle for sanity and the help she received from Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, herself a refugee from Nazi Germany. Dr. Fromm-Reichmann had strong theories about the practice of therapy; she avoided drugs and stressed human interaction.

Over the intervening years, the therapeutic profession lost a lot of credibility. Many therapists contributed to this by renting themselves out for court cases (defense attorneys could find a therapist to exonerate a client as readily as prosecutors could find one to condemn him), encouraging a torrent of recovered memories of childhood abuse, and fueling nationwide hysteria during the 1980s about satanic cults in schools, daycare centers and leafy, normal-seeming suburbs. Questions that had always existed about the rational and scientific basis for therapy became acute. And even as the therapeutic profession approached meltdown, insurance companies were securing their stranglehold on the practice of medicine. When the primary concern is profit, old-fashioned talk therapy -- therapy as art -- is far too costly. Give patients a handful of sessions, said the HMOs, drug them up and send them on their way. It's hard to imagine anyone using Dr. Fromm-Reichmann's risky, intensely personal methods today.

Walter L. Newton's dramatized version of Rose Garden is in part a protest against the contemporary approach. Unfortunately, it's hard to write a play where the only action is mental illness. You get screaming mad scenes; writhing figures representing the imaginary world of the protagonist, Deborah; therapy sessions; vignettes about Deborah's family. It's unclear what drove this girl over the edge -- a childhood surgery? The neighbors' anti- Semitism? A peculiar relationship with her father that had undertones of incest?

The second act is better than the first and contains moments that connect, particularly the scene in which Deborah's demons turn on her therapist. But despite the fact that Karalyn Pytel plays Deborah with genuine emotion, I found it difficult to care about her. Paige L. Larson's performance as the therapist also seems strangely insubstantial. Rick Bernstein is strong as Deborah's baffling and self-absorbed father, Jacob.

It's hard not to agree with Greenberg, who lives in Evergreen and cooperated with Miners Alley, that mind-altering drugs should be used only as a last resort. But how many therapists are as skilled as Fromm-Reichmann, and do those who are less skilled really help their patients much? In the end -- as they have throughout history -- the roots of madness and its cure remain a mystery.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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