Freud’s Last Session | Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Freuds-Last-Session 75If you’ve forgotten, you might want to check out how civilized people behave when their beliefs diverge, if you can get a ticket.

Freuds-Last-Session 500

The Studio Theatre at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is where a lot of the magic happens every season, yet I know longtime subscribers who think the basement space is just for students. Another misperception was expressed as we took our seats for the much-anticipated performance of Freud’s Last Session when one woman in our row said quite loudly, “We’ve been coming here for 35 years. We don’t go to the stuff upstairs anymore. They just repeat [old shows].” Not true, of course, but representative of the idea that the real art, the special material, is downstairs. It so happens that the Rep is currently mounting two special shows, but they could not be more different from each other, and both are well suited to their discrete spaces.

The play adapted from treatise called The Question of God by Harvard professor Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. (not incidentally, a Christian who may have stacked the deck a bit), is erudite and remarkably humorous. Like any good conversation with equally matched wits, playing with language is a tool in debate, adding to their pleasure and ours. Here Sigmund Freud (Barry Mulholland), 83 and suffering horribly from oral cancer, and C.S. Lewis, (Jim Butz), nearly 50 years younger, but still old enough to have seen the horrors of the first World War are engaged in an argument over the existence of God. The two men meet in Freud’s London study on an early September afternoon in 1939, the exact day Great Britain declared war on Germany and spend an hour and a quarter engaged in spirited discussion. Lewis is late for tea, much to Freud’s displeasure. (There is no evidence that these two men ever actually met, but this is a kind of “what-if” based on their stated beliefs.)

Freud is a lifelong atheist. As a child, he was exposed to both Judaism from his Orthodox father and Catholicism from his devout nanny. Lewis, on the other hand, was also a nonbeliever until he had an epiphany in the sidecar of his brother’s motorbike on the way to the zoo one day, and became a godly man. He does dislike church music though, and leaves his Church of England services after communion to go to the pub across the street until the mass is concluded. This last observation is not incidental because music comes to the fore in this meeting, and for me, created the only serious flaw in the play itself: the ending, to the extent that I think an impression of favoritism of one side of an unanswerable question is privileged over the other. But you’ll have to decide that for yourself.

It is up to Lewis to defend God and the extremely learned Freud to dismantle his arguments, to act as the witness for the prosecution. Despite a fondness for eclectic religious fetishes that surround him, cluttering his desk and displayed elsewhere around the room, he claims affection only for them as art. At one point, Lewis challenges him on the historicity of certain religious leaders including Mohammed, Buddha, and Jesus. Freud concedes that they did live, but were not divine, while Lewis counters with the argument that the first two wouldn’t have claimed it, and Jesus did. Thus, he set himself up for disbelief when he came right out and said, “I am the son of God.”

Some of the usual ground is covered: illness and subsequent suffering, war, famine, and all the bad stuff in the world, which Lewis contends is not caused by God, but he is there for those who seek him in time of sorrow, as well as joy. Freud thinks that’s a crock. He has lost two children, one a 27-year-old married daughter who had children and the other a five-year-old son. But Lewis is no stranger to incidents that could shake his faith — his father’s early death, his own war experiences, even his immense knowledge and immersion in a group of intellectuals at Oxford called the “Inklings.” For anyone who knows about his life, there will be much in his future that will try his soul. And he says he questions God every day, but he still sees and feels God everywhere to the extent that “God fills the world” with his presence.

There is discussion of sex and sexuality—this IS Sigmund Freud, who even makes an endearing cigar joke—but we learn little. The psychoanalyst believes that all people are intrinsically bisexual and not monogamous by nature, but they can choose to be. Lewis dodges questions about his own experience as, ultimately, does Freud. Still Lewis scores a point which is symbolized by his placing a picture on the famous couch. He occasionally sits on it himself, but doesn’t fall into the older man’s trap of lying down so he is in the more submissive position. And so it goes, back and forth; back and forth. At last, the “session” is over, and Lewis leaves. But the play is not over. Not quite.

Director Michael Haney has an ideal cast in Mulholland and Butz, as equally matched as artists as the men they play are in wit. The fact that Butz is a theology student in real life may add to the conviction of his performance, but having seen him many times when he was more active in theatre a few years ago, I do not think so. He’s just that good, and he is missed. Mulholland has not appeared at the Rep before, but I hope he does again. He has the ability to amuse, edify, and horrify in a matter of moments, even seconds.

The set is perfectly styled and decorated by Peter and Margery Spack. The room itself is in perfect order, albeit cluttered, but framing the stage are broken boards and other signs of ruin to depict London in the early days of the Blitz. Director Michael Evan Haney seems to have gotten inside of these characters to bring them to full 3-D life, and Elizabeth Eisloeffel’s costumes reflect the conflict between the two men with the use of blue for Lewis’ sweater and slacks contrasted with Freud all in gray. James Sale’s lighting design illuminates the space but seems overly bright. Maybe that’s symbolic, but it messes with the mood when the audience is also strongly lit. (It also seems to be making the actors really, really hot, as much sweating occurs.) Benjamin Marcum’s sound design helps replicate the period by using the real voices of the radio speakers, including King George VI, for this was the day of the famous “King’s Speech.”

I think this play might appeal most to those of us old enough to remember when people could argue about anything, even this “Big Question,” and find common ground, respect for each other, and retain the ability to agree to disagree. While these are rather posh gentlemen, and presumably so is Lewis’ God because we all tend to fashion our deities in our own images, civil discourse is not inherently archaic, but our current political climate has made it so. So, if you’ve forgotten, you might want to check out how civilized people behave when their beliefs diverge, if you can get a ticket. The show is selling well, its run has been extended, and that is — inarguably — very good news. | Andrea Braun

Freud’s Last Session runs through November 24, 2013. You may contact repstl.org for information.

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