Aurora Theatre’s Tranced is mesmerizing 

The fresh, complex script invigorates the Lawrenceville playhouse

In an old "Saturday Night Live" fake commercial, Jon Lovitz played a hypnotist called "The Amazing Alexander," whose audiences and critics alike intoned the testimonial, "I loved it! It was much better than Cats! I'm going to see it again and again!"

Just because I loved Aurora Theatre's hypnotism play Tranced – and, indeed, found it much better than Cats – don't assume that some mesmerist put the whammy on me. The Lawrenceville playhouse probably has never produced such a fresh, complex script as Tranced's regional premiere. It's the kind of provocative new work usually staged at Horizon Theatre or the Alliance Hertz Stage. Tranced's intertwined dynamics of hypnotherapy, journalism and geo-politics run the risk of alienating the theater's audience, who's accustomed to more old-fashioned musicals, comedies and whodunits. Creatively, at least, Tranced delivers spellbinding results for Aurora.

"You can see a lingering trace of everywhere if you stare long enough in my face," announces Dr. Phillip Malaad (Maurice Ralston), a lauded hypnotherapist, whose polyglot upbringing hints at the play's global scope. Despite his international background, he considers his modest Washington, D.C., office home. Phillip receives a new patient, Azmera (Naima Carter Russell), a proud African graduate student who suffers from panic attacks that interfere with her studies. Phillip's trancing techniques tap into suppressed memories from Azmera's (fictional) home country of Guyamba, where she witnessed horrors she doesn't consciously recall.

Azmera's hypnotic account contains such explosive implications that Phillip contacts Beth (Cara Mantella), a journalist specializing in African affairs. The first act cuts between Phillip and Azmera's sessions, and Phillip and Beth discussing their recordings after the fact. A dam project promises to give the country's economy an enormous boost, but also could presage a crisis comparable to Rwanda or Darfur. Here the Hippocratic oath collides with journalistic responsibility: Beth can't publish a story without an on-the-record interview, but Phillip can't rush integrating Azmera's memories into her consciousness without risking psychological damage. Their conflict offers a contemporary equivalent to one of George Bernard Shaw's classic dramas, which set up fierce debates between contending issues.

Playwright Bob Clyman is a trained clinical psychologist, so the details of trancing prove persuasive. Tranced avoids clichés like swaying pocket watches or exhortations to "Sleep!" and reveals that hypnosis can rely on nearly subliminal rhetorical strategies: "When someone takes control of your options, you fall into trance," says Phillip. Any conversation, not just between doctor and patient, takes on another level of intensity when interruptions or loaded questions could represent an attempt to hypnotize someone.

Ralston, in his final Atlanta performance before his family moves to Nashville, comfortably takes on the role. With his self-possession and at times sinister delivery, he belongs on a casting director's short list for actors who can play the devil. Physically, Ralston doesn't match Phillip's ethnic ambiguity, but he compensates with a clipped, vaguely British accent that makes the character's nationality difficult to pin down. Though he maintains a poker face worthy of any shrink, he lets Phillip's anxieties slip out as well.

Chad Martin may be a little young for the role of Logan, an undersecretary of state who lays out for Beth the complexities of U.S. intervention in Africa. Logan emerges as overwritten, prone to outbursts of macho boorishness, as if Clyman tries too hard to give him colorful traits to balance the role's discussions of international diplomacy.

Arguably, Tranced includes one twist too many, but director Susan Reid maintains both the production's intensity and its clarity. To her credit, the action and ideas never become overly convoluted. Tranced sets a high standard for any contemporary plays Aurora chooses in the future. I probably won't see Tranced "again and again," but its example will compel me to make the drive to Lawrenceville more often.

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