Story: On the eve of World War II, famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud invites little known Oxford professor C.S. Lewis to his London flat. Lewis suspects that Dr. Freud intends to chastise him for some flippant remarks made by Lewis about the noted atheist in a new book the Christian author has written. He is surprised to hear that Freud hasn’t read the book at all, and also stunned to learn that the 83-year-old physician is dying of cancer.
Instead, the father of psychoanalysis says that he is fascinated how a formerly avowed atheist such as Lewis could have become a staunch defender of and believer in Christianity. As sirens wail and the two listen to intermittent radio reports about Germany’s relentless invasion of Poland, they discuss their views about religion, science, love and the nature of life itself.
Highlights: This fictional encounter between two of the foremost figures of Western civilization in the 20th century was written by Mark St. Germain, who drew his inspiration from a book titled The Question of God by Harvard professor Dr. Armand Nicholi Jr. The latter is a clinical professor of psychiatry who has taught a course on Freud and Lewis at Harvard for more than 35 years.
A fine production featuring two stellar performances by Rep newcomer Barry Mulholland as Freud and local favorite Jim Butz as Lewis opens The Rep’s 2013-14 Studio Theatre season in highly intellectual, if not dramatically powerful, style.
Other Info: This is a smart-looking and cerebral-sounding effort. It’s noted in the script that Freud’s daughter Anna replicated her father’s famous Vienna office when the family immigrated to London to flee Hitler’s surging Nazi regime. Scenic designers Peter and Margery Spack show meticulous attention to detail in the plush furniture and Oriental rugs, and also fill the façade with debris and sundry imperfections that indicate the ominous presence of air raids and looming war.
Curiously, while Freud is impeccably attired in a natty gray suit, costume designer Elizabeth Eisloeffel fits Lewis in some tacky slacks that don’t match his rather lackluster tweed jacket. Benjamin Marcum’s sound design includes those alarming sirens as well as the scratchy tones of the BBC coming through Freud’s sturdy radio, while James Sale’s lighting is most effective showing the gritty world beyond Freud’s large window.
It’s a minor point, but Mulholland doesn’t look or act like an 83-year-old man, although he’s most convincing when depicting Freud’s increasing agony in his losing battle with oral cancer. He’s impressive, too, when he engages in his verbal tennis match with Butz, a wryly ironic touch in that tennis was a sport Freud enjoyed.
Butz is very good depicting the younger Lewis’ own reasoning for the existence of God just as Mulholland shrewdly conveys Freud’s atheism and his fervent respect for science. Lewis is shown to be tentative at times and defensive at others, such as when Freud makes an analytical observation about the younger man’s living arrangement with his brother and the mother of a wartime pal.
What’s problematic for director Michael Evan Haney is to maintain any sense of momentum with St. Germain’s script, which tends to revisit familiar territory even within its tidy one act and 75 minutes of performance. This really isn’t a drama as much as an intellectual debate with scenery, so it’s incumbent that the two performers be at their best to engage an audience. Here, they do so with both polish and persuasion.
The real strength in St. Germain’s script is the underlying humanity of the two characters that he taps into with affection. Mulholland captures the anguish felt by Freud at the death of one of his daughters and a grandson, a helpless anger that perhaps contributed to his theories about the “lies” of religion.
The play is at its best when Lewis reacts with compassion to Freud’s horrifying condition, and the inherent respect each appears to have for the other is underscored in the affecting performances of Butz and Mulholland.
There’s a modicum of discussion about sex and a bit more about love, with doses of humor sprinkled throughout. Primarily, though, Freud’s Last Session is a two-way discourse about the existence of a higher being between a believer and a non-believer on a lofty level. As Agent Mulder would passionately say, the truth is out there.
Play: Freud’s Last Session
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Emerson Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through November 24
Tickets: $49-$63; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Eric Woolsey