Freud’s Last Session – Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Center, Phoenix

The new production from Arizona Theatre Company at the Herberger Center, Freud’s Last Session from playwright Mark St. Germain, is a fantasy what-if scenario.  What if two great minds of the 20th Century, atheist Sigmund Freud and celebrated Christian writer C.S.Lewis, came together to discuss the existence of God?    “One of us is a fool,” states Freud.

The play is set on the eve of war.  England, 1939.  As we hear from the BBC on Freud’s wireless at the beginning of the play, Hitler has invaded Poland.  Air raids have begun.  We are in  Freud’s study in his London home, a wonderfully detailed set of books and antiques from scenic designer Kent Dorsey.  Freud (J. Michael Flynn) is waiting for his guest and it’s obvious the man is frail and in ill health, but he is ready to debate, and presumably to analyze.

 

Enter C.S. Lewis (Benjamin Evett) a much younger man.  At this point Lewis has yet to write his famous Chronicles of Narnia, but he has already made his mark with essays on Christianity, and it’s on this point that Freud would like to talk.  Freud, we learn, is a dying man with a prosthetic upper jaw that makes talking difficult.  When asked by Lewis if the cancer in his mouth is painful, Freud responds, “Only when I talk, but my not talking is unlikely.”

Throughout the following eight-five minutes, the two men discuss everything from the horrors of war – “My friend exploded ten feet in front of me,” explains Lewis – to life under Hitler, music, and of course, faith.

 

Oddly enough, the expected debate on faith and Christianity and the existence of God as written by St. Germain isn’t as challenging as you might hope.  Obviously this is an imagined conversation, but the play’s setup prepares you in such a way that you half expect to leave the theatre pondering some of the points raised, maybe hoping for that special piece of information or inspirational thought that could possibly alter your own outlook, or at least force you to examine your beliefs in a way you had never previously considered, but it never comes.  That’s not to say the dialog is not engaging – on the contrary, I would have been happier if the play actually continued longer than it did – but the sense of learning something new is absent and you leave the theatre impressed by the overall high-standard of the show’s production but feeling no different on the subject of faith than you did when going in.

But the script shines in other, smaller observations.  When Lewis states that, “We English take our humor very seriously,” Freud responds with, “English humor is a still a mystery to me,” then proceeds to tell a joke that only he can find amusing.  The subject of music is even more compelling.  Lewis notices that Freud turns on his radio to hear news bulletins but never allows the following music to invade the study.  Freud explains that he doesn’t like to feel artificially moved by something he doesn’t understand.  Lewis, once an atheist himself now a devout Christian, explains his dislike of hymns and how he equates them with dipping a chocolate bar in sugar.  “They trivialize emotions I already have,” he explains.

 

Director Stephen Wrentmore directs with an assured hand, making great use of the large area of space offered by the outstanding set, played out by just the two performers.  Benjamin Evett succeeds in making Lewis a likable, affable character, even if his English accent sounds occasionally mannered and unnecessarily clipped, but it’s J. Michael Flynn’s performance as Freud that really works.  He is so successful in conveying a sense of sickness and frailty that it’s actually a relief to see him looking well and bouncing off the stage with a revived sense of vigor at the play’s end, after the bows.

To find out more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE to go directly to the ATC website.

 

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