By Pat Launer
Two of the 20th Century’s most influential minds turn their laser-sharp focus on one of the greatest mysteries of all time: the existence of God.
In 2009, playwright Mark St. Germain imagined how it might have gone, between the atheistic Jewish-born father of psychoanalysis, at age 83, and the 40 year-old novelist, poet, lay theologian and Christian apologist, in September 1939.
Freud had just escaped from Vienna a year earlier, after the Nazis annexed Austria, and he and his beloved daughter, Anna, were called in for questioning.
The action (what there is of it) takes place in Freud’s London study. Sacred, spiritual iconography (statues from the Greeks, Egyptians, Buddhists, Christians and others) adorns every surface that isn’t cluttered with books (excellent scenic design by Brian Prather; the fine lighting by Nathan Peirson, sets a sepia mood).
Periodically, they turn on the radio, to hear Prime Minister Chamberlain preparing the country for war. At one point, the normally self-possessed Lewis, a veteran of the “war to end all wars,” is thoroughly unnerved by an air raid, scrambling frantically to the floor, grasping for his gas mask. Freud reveals his humanity in physical suffering. He is in the final throes of a debilitating and degenerating oral cancer — though he still lights up a cigar, claiming it’s the only sexual pleasure he has left; he will be dead, of his own accord (with physician assistance) three weeks later. In between these digressions, they dispute, debate, discuss and pontificate (in Freud’s case).
The drama, which ran for two years Off Broadway, is very talky. It’s not for the intellectually faint of heart. And it doesn’t, of course, provide any definitive answers.
Freud has invited Lewis to find out why the former atheist had such an epiphany, such a dramatic change of heart. They each make cogent arguments for their positions, and it’s fascinating to watch them go at it, tempering their comments with humor at times.
Under the firm, focused direction of Deborah Gilmour Smyth (who also provided the evocative sound design), Robert Smyth is a marvelous Freud (and an incredible likeness), with all the arrogance and rigid certainty of the elder statesman. Fran Gercke gives a commendably restrained performance, quietly assertive, a formidable mind-match for the master.
The production is well-paced, and the conversation, in spite of its depth and occasional sermonizing, keeps us engaged. And though it probably won’t change any minds, the play will encourage you to examine your own beliefs. And for theater, that’s a major measure of success.
- “Freud’s Last Session” runs through May 30 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado
- Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday
- Tickets ($22-$72) are available at 619-437-6000 on online at www.lambsplayers.org
- Running time: 90 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.