Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009
"What were we thinking? It was madness to think we could solve the greatest mystery of all time in one morning."
- C.S. Lewis in Mark St. Germain's Freud's Last Session
Is there a God?
Anyone over the age of five with half a brain has pondered this one. There are three popular answers: Yes, No, and Beats the Heck Out of Me.
In Mark St. Germain’s new play Freud’s Last Session he imagines what it would be like if Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), an ethnically Jewish Atheist, and C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), a Christian with, at the date St. Germain assigns this meeting, a fairly recently revived religious fervor, had met to discuss this question. Being educated men of with strong opinions and at least a brain and a half a piece, this conversation is very dense indeed.
This conversation is a fantasy that St. Germain was inspired to write by Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr.'s book The Question of God, which was turned into a two-part program on PBS in 2004. Nicholi consulted on the writing of this play, but ultimately, this is Mark St. Germain pondering whether or not God exists, and the question is, are his musings – or even those of Freud and Lewis – any more illuminating than yours or mine?
I’ll tell you this, they are no more conclusive.
If you have watched The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for any period of time, you may remember the hilarious Even Stevphen debates that Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert used to have when they were both “Daily Show Correspondents” and not big stars in their own right. The debates would often devolve into one of them shouting “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!” while the other hollered “YEEEESSSSSSS!!” For all their big words and deep thoughts, that is pretty much what St. Germain has Freud and Lewis doing for 75 minutes. And I am not sure it is good theatre.
St. Germain has set his imaginary confrontation in Freud’s study in London on September 3, 1939. Freud (played by Martin Rayner), his wife Martha and youngest daughter Anna had fled to England from Austria to escape the Nazis fifteen months earlier, but now air raid sirens are sounding in London, everyone is carrying gas masks, women and children are being evacuated from the city and even the hospitals and prisons are being emptied. Freud was then 83 years old and suffering the last stages of oral cancer. Three weeks later his physician, Max Schur, administered the doses of morphine that killed him in a prearranged euthanasia.
Lewis (played by Mark H. Dold) was 41, a Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, and living with his brother and the mother of his friend “Paddy” Moore with whom Lewis served in World War I and whose death in battle Lewis witnessed. He had moved from atheism to confessed Christian belief eight years earlier. In 1939 Lewis was a successful academic, but he had not yet written the Chronicles of Narnia or the reflections on Christianity for which he is famous today.
If there is ever a time to question God’s existence and plan for humanity, it is in wartime, or when you are terminally ill, or when you have watched your family, friends, and neighbors marched off to the gas chambers. Yet Lewis is clear minded and resolute that God is real and God is good. And Freud is convinced otherwise. Since neither of them budges an inch there is little dramatic movement in the piece. If it weren’t for that air raid siren, the occasional phone call, and Neville Chamberlain and King George VI courtesy of the BBC, nothing would happen at all.
Both Rayner and Dold are fine actors and under Tyler Marchant’s direction they do the best they can to make this ponderous theological debate lively and interesting. St. Germain has given Rayner more to do, showing us just how physically weak and ill Freud is, and he looks enough like the original to do him justice. Dold looks nothing like Lewis and seems to have been cast simply because he is a good actor who has been popular with BSC audiences in other roles over the last five seasons. When you are playing an historical figure, some physical resemblance, real or cleverly devised, is necessary. Dold is talented and versatile, but this is not his role. Surely there was another, better-fitting acting niche for him this season.
The room in which the play is set is now part of the Freud Museum London, so designer Brian Prather had his marching orders from the git go. The set is a good likeness, but I don’t understand why is all crammed in the (stage left) corner. I was sitting on the better side of the theatre and appreciated the view, but I think if I had sat on the other aisle I would have been disappointed.
Towards the end of the play Freud suffers a medical crisis requiring the removal of his false palate (there was nothing else separating his oral and nasal cavities). Not the kind of thing that is easy to stage, nor the kind of thing audiences generally want to see, but Marchant has managed this tricky bit of business as tastefully as possible – a tad too tastefully in fact because the stage blood is a delicate shade of pink rather than the deep blue-red of the stuff that actually courses through our veins. Yeah, to be more realistic might have been stomach-turning (like the whole idea of removing the roof of someone’s mouth isn’t?) but if the scene had to been in there (I guess it sends a worth while anti-smoking message), I think they should have shown it like it is. Cancer isn’t pretty.
If you personally are very solidly in the Yes or No category of the God debate and it upsets you to hear the counter argument this is probably not the play for you. Lewis argues vigorously for Christianity – although he was Church of England I felt his points leant towards the Roman Catholic viewpoint – and Freud argues stubbornly for the absence of deity. No argument is made for any other belief system.
The Barrington Stage Company production of the Freud's Last Session runs through July 3 at the Stage 2 space in the VFW Hall, 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA. The show runs an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission and is so academic and dense that it really is for patient and interested adults only. Please call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org to purchase tickets or for more information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009
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