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Freud’s Last Session

by Mark St. Germain

Suggested by The Question of God by Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.

Directed by Michael Evan Haney

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio Theatre

November 3, 2013

Barry Mulholland, Jim Butz Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Barry Mulholland, Jim Butz
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Two famous 20th Century intellectuals—known for their widely opposing viewpoints—meet for conversation, debate, and a few personal revelations on an afternoon in London at the beginning of World War II.  This is the premise for Freud’s Last Session, the latest production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Studio Theatre.  Even though the depicted meeting of famed psychoanalyst and atheist Sigmund Freud with Christian apologist and writer C. S. Lewis is fabricated for the play and never actually took place, this well-realized and brilliantly cast production makes me wish that it had actually happened. 

While this play is inspired by a series of (hypothetical) debates, the structure of it is much more of a conversation than a debate, and the aim seems to be to accurately portray Freud’s and Lewis’s views, but also show them as real men with strengths and weakness as opposed to idealizations. While I went into this play knowing a lot more about Lewis than about Freud, I learned a lot about both men. Ostensibly a conversation about their different views on the existence of God, the discussion also drifts into topics of war, music, sex, suicide, both men’s relationships with their fathers, and more.  It’s a play that can very easily seem didactic and dry without the right staging and cast, but this production is so fully realized that it brings these characters and their time and setting to life and a vivid and emotionally engaging way.   These men are both brilliant intellectuals, but on opposing sides and still fascinated to learn about one another, and how their experiences shaped their beliefs.

The casting is nothing short of ideal.  Mulholland portrays the elderly, physically declining Freud as unfailingly curious intellectually, but in a more agressive and confrontational manner than Butz’s more gentle and inquiring Lewis. Suffering from terminal mouth cancer and dealing with bouts of extreme pain as well as reflecting on various regrets and life experiences, Mulholland portrays a Freud who is at once determined and weary, displaying his frailty physically in his slightly hunched-over posture shuffling gait, but displaying a strong energy in his speech, and a tendency to get carried away with his ideas, and and  and very curious about Lewis’s relatively new-found faith. Butz, in turn, plays Lewis in all of his complexity as well, as a man eager to learn more about life, and in a sense of continued wonder about his reluctant but joyful conversion.  He is all politeness and a little bit of trepidation at first, but soon is every bit as energetic as Freud.  I think the interaction between these two brilliant actors portraying two brilliant thinkers is the high point of this play.  Both men play off of each other expertly, and their intellectual sparring and witty banter, as well as some highly emotional moments as Freud reflects on his mortality and Lewis recalls the horrors of his experiences in World War I, bring depth to these characters and make them real for the audience.  This also is the most sympathetic portrayal of Freud in particular that I’ve ever seen. Lewis has had his dramatic representation in the play and movies of Shadowlands, but this  play show a younger, even more idealistic Lewis. This isn’t just an exercise in historical fantasy with these two actors. They bring a sense of depth and immediacy to the proceedings that is fascinating to witness.  

The production brings the audience into a fully realized experience of the time and place, as well.  Freud’s London study is brought to life by set designers Peter and Margery Spack, well appointed with books, various religious artifacts (which Freud collects), cluttered desk and the iconic analyst’s couch.  The costumes, designed by  Elizabeth Eisloeffel help to define both the time period and the specific personalities of the characters–the older, formally dressed Freud in his three-piece suit and the younger, more laid-back Lewis in his sweater and sport coat.  The 1930’s flavor is also enhanced by the use of music, authentic-sounding radio broadcasts updating the progress of the war, and other elements (air raid sirens, gas masks) emphasizing the looming threat of violence and uncertainty in the lives of Londoners of the day. It’s a trip back in time, and a completely engaging one.

As for the issues presented in this play, the goal doesn’t seem to be convincing the audience to believe one way or the other. In the vividly realized characterizations, both Freud and Lewis are firmly convinced, and neither is likely to change his mind as a result of one afternoon’s conversation, and I don’t think anyone in the audience (whether they side with Freud or Lewis, or otherwise) will change their opinion either, but I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that thinking people of drastically differing viewpoints can engage each other respectfully and honestly, and grow to respect and even admire one another despite their disagreements and maybe even learn more about themselves and their world in the process.  I think that’s a valuable lesson in any age, even if the actual meeting that is presented here is imaginary.  That message is communicated with much poignancy in the superb performances of Butz and Mulholland, and in the strong presentation and staging of this excellent and thought-provoking production.

Jim Butz, Barry Mulholland Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jim Butz, Barry Mulholland
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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