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Sunday, 03 November 2013 14:54

The production, not the play, is the thing in 'Freud's Last Session' at the Rep

Written by Chuck Lavazzi

The Details

(L to R): Barry Mulholland as Sigmund Freud and Jim Butz as C.S. Lewis
(L to R): Barry Mulholland as Sigmund Freud and Jim Butz as C.S. Lewis repstl.org / Eric Woolsey

The best thing about “Freud’s Last Session”—in which a fictional meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis becomes a debate on the existence of God—is the quality of the production. Director Michael Evan Haney’s blocking, pacing, and overall feel for dramatic crescendos and diminuendos bring life to what is, on paper, a somewhat static script.

His actors are thoroughly invested in and believable as their characters. Jim Butz’s C.S. Lewis is particularly impressive, given how poorly Lewis’s character is fleshed out. As written, he is for the most part a blandly likable mouthpiece for the real Lewis’s opinions. Mr. Butz manages to give us hints that Lewis might have an inner life. Barry Mulholland’s aging Freud is also a brilliant piece of work. He captures Freud’s physical fragility and discomfort as well as the character’s combative and even heroic spirit.

Benjamin Marcum’s sound design is strikingly realistic and his music choices (Vaughn Williams and Benjamin Britten) are both appropriate and historically right. And set designers Peter and Margery Spack have not only brought Freud’s study to vivid life, they’ve surrounded it with symbols of the chaos that threatened his life on the eve of World War II.

This is, in short, a polished production on every level. Unfortunately, what they’re polishing is more cubic zirconium than diamond. Moments of dry humor not withstanding, Mark St. Germain’s script feels, on the whole, not so much like a work of drama as an intellectual debate, and a somewhat stale one at that.

That was, perhaps, inevitable, since it was inspired by a series of lectures by Harvard psychiatry professor Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., that attempted to create a debate between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis by juxtaposing excerpts from their writing. Still, if you’re going to have historical characters hashing over arguments that have been largely beaten to death since their time, I think you need to either offer new insights on those arguments or use them as the basis for character or relationship development. “Freud’s Last Session” does very little of either of these, so we’re mostly just left with the debate.

It doesn’t help, from my point of view, that it’s a debate in which the playwright’s thumb seems to be on the theist side of the scale. More than once, Mr. St. Germain has Freud fail to counter some rather feeble arguments for the existence of God or the divinity of Christ, including the old “lord, liar, or lunatic” gag. He has also made Freud an obviously flawed, difficult, and (at times) unpleasant character, while his Lewis is mostly bland niceness. Granted, there’s an ugly streak of sanctimony that comes out when Lewis condemns Freud’s plan to commit suicide before the pain of his cancer becomes unbearable, but even here it’s shaded in a way that makes it look like Freud is in the wrong for wanting to end his suffering.

But that, too, may not be surprising. The aforementioned Dr. Nicholi, it turns out, has a dog in this hunt; he’s a founding board member of the far right Family Research Council, the creation of fundamentalist theocrat James Dobson. Is that why both Lewis and his arguments seem to be presented more sympathetically? I don’t know, but—as Sherlock Holmes might have said—it’s suggestive.

“Freud’s Last Session” runs through November 24th in the studio theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. The play is a one act, running around 75 minutes. For more information: repstl.org.

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