Opening Nights: Freud's Last Session

In which C.S. Lewis helps Siggy settle the God issue.

Imagined encounters between famous historical figures are a popular gimmick for playwrights both serious (Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, about Bohr, Heisenberg, and the building of the bomb) and not (Nora Ephron's Imaginary Friends, in which Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman catfight in hell). Mark St. Germain's Freud's Last Session lands somewhere in between, delivering a lumpy mix of theological debate and tentative camaraderie.

It's September 1939, and England has just declared war on Germany. Inside his London refuge (nicely dressed by Mark Lund), Sigmund Freud (Nolan Palmer) has invited rising young Christian intellectual C.S. Lewis (Matt Shimkus) to tea. The dying Freud is an atheist with an urgent agenda to settle the God issue, which somewhat forcibly leads to philosophical scrimmaging. Freud is a tough protagonist to warm to: He laughs like a barking seal, reeks of decaying flesh, and heaps ghastly nursing responsibilities on his unseen daughter. Wearing a bearded poker face for much of the talky play, Palmer plausibly incarnates a doctor whose habitual blank-screen demeanor—maintained for his patients' projections—is now leaking witty bits of id. Shimkus' Lewis, healthy and glib, has far less skin in the debate; he's more like an athlete on God's team who just enjoys sparring. Still, it's cartoonish fun to watch him hoist his fallen jaw after some of Freud's more outlandish pronouncements.

In this two-man verbal contest, director Scott Nolte has his combatants perambulate, recline on the couch, and rearrange the props—anything to animate the text. But mainly he simply has his actors talk relentlessly. (For punctuation, we have Freud's life-threatening choking fits.) As a play, it doesn't really work for me. As an inventory of arguments laced with character-revealing humor, however, Freud's Last Session succeeds. And there's a satisfying emotional coda, when the psychoanalyst who refuses morphine for his pain—because "I have to think clearly"—finally lets go of his mind.

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