Have you ever seen a movie or read a book that was so interesting you had to talk about it for days afterward? That is exactly what you will experience if you see the play, Freud’s Last Session, showing now on the Riverside Theatre’s Waxlax Stage.
Playwright Mark St. Germain wrote this play based on a fictional meeting between neurologist, father of psychoanalysis, Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria and atheist, Sigmund Freud, with C.S. Lewis, author (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters), professor and Christian apologist. The meeting takes place in Freud’s English study just as Nazi Germany invades Poland on September 1, 1939. Freud called for the meeting, curious as to why Lewis, a lifelong atheist, suddenly became a Christian. Could you think of any better scenario – discussing life, death, good, evil, an all-powerful, loving God and all the death and destruction wrought by war?
Other plot devises added to the debate, both of them true: Freud was battling terminal oral cancer and in fact, would die in another three weeks. Seemingly it is a time when one would think seriously about preparing to meet his maker. And then “The war to end all wars” just 21 years earlier, left Second Lieutenant Lewis seriously wounded and two of his comrades blown to bits by an errant British shell. He would have to doubt this was part of God’s or anyone’s plan.
The discourse between these characters is fluid and thought-provoking, especially when Freud scores points exposing Lewis’s narrow and rigid ideas of morality and Lewis returns the favor questioning Freud’s controlling behavior towards his daughter, Anna. Neither of them scores a knockout blow, but both feel the sting of doubt in their firm positions. In the end, they agree to disagree, a far cry from the real world of religious disagreement where arguments often end in bloodshed.
The two characters are played by Steve Brady (Freud) and David Schmittou (Lewis), both veterans of Riverside, most recently West Side Story for both of them. Their versatility as actors is fully tested in this 90-minute play without intermission. I can’t imagine even performing an hour and a half of memorized, rapid dialogue with barely enough time to come up for air and doing it in German (Brady) and cultured English (Schmittou) accents!
There is a third actor though, quite possibly the elephant in the room – the production. The theater is set up in the round, with Freud’s study at its center. The characters at different times turn on a 30s era radio, first to hear broadcasts of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin’s forlorn declaration of war, then to listen as news bulletins about Hitler’s invasion of Poland interrupt regularly scheduled classical music programs. (“In just two days there are an estimated 20,000 people killed…. Now we will return to our musical broadcast…”).
Especially effective are the sound effects – screaming air raid sirens striking fear in both men as well as the audience, and a bomber flying overhead that, thank God (according to Lewis) is one of ours.
Before the show I thought I would become as depressed as one of Freud’s patients, but I left the theater ready to engage anyone in a debate about Freud, Lewis, war, cancer, religion or theaters in the round. Freud’s Last Session beats any “E coupon” attraction at DisneyWorld.