Theater Review - Freud's Last Session feels like a hyperarticulate dorm-room bull session
Play pits C.S. Lewis' Christianity against Freud's atheism
The couch takes on the wardrobe in the drama Freud's Last Session, which imagines a meeting of the minds between pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and Christian intellectual/Narnia author C.S. Lewis.
In real life, the powerhouse thinkers never met, although Lewis spent most of his career as an Oxford University professor and Freud lived his final months in London. Inspired by Armand Nicholi's The Question of God, playwright Mark St. Germain envisions a plausible encounter between Freud and Lewis on the eve of World War II. Jessica Phelps West directs a snappy production, but the action feels less like a war of words than a gentlemen's disagreement.
When Lewis (Andrew Benator) accepts an invitation to the Austrian psychiatrist's new home, he believes that Freud wants to discuss his satirical portrayal in Lewis' 1933 novel The Pilgrim's Regress. In fact, Freud (David De Vries) wants to quiz Lewis about his conversion experience in accepting Jesus as the Son of God. A Jew having recently fled Nazi-controlled Austria, Freud suffers from cancer and seeks to better understand spirituality before he dies.
Freud's Last Session unfolds as a dialogue between one of the 20th century's greatest atheists and one of its most eloquent champions of Christianity. St. Germain gives them moments of clever banter, such as Lewis' observation, "When I was a student at university, we devoured every one of your books to discover our latest perversion." The chat turns to more provocative ideas, like the possibility that difficult daddy issues shaped Lewis' desire for and Freud's disbelief in God. The problem of why a just God permits earthly suffering takes added urgency with Germany on the march, and at one point an air raid siren disrupts the conversation. "Should Poland turn the other cheek to Hitler?" Freud asks Lewis.
Overall, Freud's Last Session resembles a hyperarticulate dorm-room bull session about religion vs. atheism. Freud serves as the late 1930s equivalent to contemporary atheist Richard Dawkins, but the psychiatrist's famous image gets in the way of the drama. De Vries captures the role's piercing intellect, but seems too vigorous given Freud's age and ill health, while his accent, cigar and emphasis on sexuality approach the level of cliché. We learn interesting factoids about Freud, including that his study in England was a close replica of his longtime office in Vienna (the set featured wonderfully overcrowded shelves). His inner character, not to say his soul, remains hidden.
Benator nicely conveys Lewis' contradictory emotions as a man with devout beliefs, nagging uncertainties and just a little fear in Freud's presence. But William Nicholson beat St. Germain to the punch with a great middlebrow play about Lewis, Shadowlands, in which the professor falls in love with American author Joy Gresham and his detached view of the problem of suffering crumbles when she dies of bone cancer.
Compared to Shadowlands, Freud's Last Session treats its subjects with kid gloves. Both men refuse to discuss certain aspects of their personal lives, a realistic detail that nevertheless prevents their clashing ideas from drawing blood.