Freud’s Last Session at Pacific Theatre
by Margaret and Flyn Ritchie
Freud’s Last Session could have been just a ‘talking heads’ production. But Ron Reed (Sigmund Freud) and Evan Frayne (C.S. Lewis) delighted their opening night audience with a spirited and probing play shot through with humour.
Reed and Frayne gave us dignified and honest renditions of the two great men as they confronted one another on life’s big questions – the existence of God, moral law, sex, love, suffering, death. They even took turns, metaphorically, on the analyst’s couch.
Carolyn Rapanos’ set was powerful and warm, based on Freud’s office in exile, in London. It had been created by his daughter Anna to replicate the one he had had to leave behind in Austria as the Nazis advanced.
We listened in on a radio broadcast of King George’s speech to the nation as war was declared. The room was overshadowed by massive wooden wings – possibly symbolic of the Nazi emblem as their planes began their air raids – or the outstretched arms of the Almighty sheltering these two men, one at life’s end, and the other at the beginning of his writing career, as they challenged and psychoanalyzed each other.
It is a mystery to me how Pacific Theatre continues to produce season after season of truly quality plays in such a small space – but that is part of its charm. The actors are forced to be authentic, and the audience in turn is drawn into their intimacy.
Freud’s Last Session, directed by Morris Ertman, is short, just an hour. It provides a tantalizing sampler of the thinking and character of Freud and Lewis.
In a positive New York Times review of the play late last year, Sylviane Gold described Freud’s Last Session as “above all, a play of ideas,” and gave a synopsis of its genesis:
It started, as many good things do, at Harvard. That’s where, in 1967, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr., a psychiatrist, began teaching a seminar on the rationalist, atheist philosophy of Sigmund Freud. Under pressure from students, he has said, he widened the syllabus to include a more religious point of view as well, adding the writings of the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis to the course. He called it ‘The Question of God’.
In the years since, his seminar has become a book, a PBS television program and the inspiration for an unlikely Off Broadway hit in 2010, Freud’s Last Session, by Mark St. Germain.
Following is an excerpt from Armand Nicholi’s book, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life, which explains why he chose to write about these two men:
“Both Freud’s and Lewis’s views have existed since the beginning of recorded history – the spiritual worldview, rooted primarily in ancient Israel, with its emphasis on moral truth and right conduct and its motto of Thus saith the Lord; and the materialist or ‘scientific’ worldview, rooted in ancient Greece, with its emphasis on reason and acquisition of knowledge and its motto What says Nature?
“All of us embrace some form of Freud’s or Lewis’s worldview. If we accept Freud’s materialism, we may call ourselves atheists, agnostics or skeptics. There are likewise many different expressions of Lewis’s worldview. . . .
“Why Freud and Lewis? . . . both write extensively about a specific, representative worldview with great depth, clarity and conciseness. . . .
“Are these worldviews merely philosophical speculations with no right or wrong answers? No. One of them begins with the basic premise that God does not exist, the other with the premise that He does. They are, therefore, mutually exclusive – if one is right, the other must be wrong.
“Does it really make any difference to know which one is which? Both Freud and Lewis thought so. They spent a good portion of their lives exploring these issues, repeatedly asking the question ‘Is it true?’”
Freud’s Last Session will run at Pacific Theatre until May 30. For more info, pacifictheatre.org.