Stephanie Machado as Sabina Spielrein and Philip Stoddard as Carl Jung in “Sabina,” a musical based on a true story that’s premiering at Portland Stage. Photo by Mical Hutson

Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director for Portland Stage, concedes that the premise of the theater’s latest production, “Sabina,” might not immediately resonate with audiences.

A catatonic woman heals herself at a mental institution and goes on to become a psychoanalyst while also 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 it 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,” beginning Friday and running through May 22. The production also will be available to stream from May 18 to June 5.

Originally written as a dramatic play 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 on several occasions, said it’s hard for him to think of “Sabina” as anything but a musical now.

“It has to be different because it’s a different form, but the songs have really become the core,” he said.

The musical focuses on the real-life story of Sabina Spielrein, a 19-year-old Russian who was institutionalized after the death of her sister and met, among others, aspiring psychoanalyst Jung. When she went onto medical school, their relationship continued and formed the basis for some of his approach to psychology, which he shared with Freud.

The story is sad and heavy at times, but there are comical and poignant moments as well. The music is has a classical feel and the songs are almost operatic, fitting with the early 20th-century time period.

Anyone who took Psychology 101 likely knows Freud and Jung, but few know Spielrein, even though her theories were just as groundbreaking.

“The influence this woman had on us without us knowing was enormous,” Cloud said.


Spielrein is hardly the first woman whose accomplishments were overshadowed by the men in her field, although creators are increasingly correcting this trend.

The musical was supposed to premiere in the spring of 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic. The entire creative and technical team that worked last week to put the finishing touches on the production said anticipation is heightened.

“There is such a sense of gratitude we all have to be making theater again,” said Daniella Topol, co-director.

For Beach, who first had the idea to set Holtzman’s play to music (she credits her husband, actually), 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 actors and others on stage. The lighting and sound crews made adjustments while the five-member cast walked through the set and handled props for the first time.


“This is a special moment when you get to see all the elements together,” he said.

With audiences only just coming back from two years of cancellations and disruptions, the creative team behind “Sabina” acknowledged that there is some risk premiering a show no one has seen before.

“With an established piece, someone has done it and made it work,” Stewart said.

But Gambini said one of his major goals is to ensure that 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 taken care of whether you know anything about this topic or not.”

The creative team also includes lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, a Tony Award winner who lives locally, sound designer Charles Coes and musical director Bradley Vieth. The professional cast members are all in the Actors Equity Association. The musical score will be performed by a string quartet, accompanied by an oboist and pianist, led by the orchestrations of August Eriksmoen.

Stewart said, more than anything, the cast and crew are excited to share “Sabina” with a live audience.

“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.

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