— (L-R): Evan Frayne and Ron Reed. Photo by Damon Calderwood.
FREUD’S LAST SESSION
Freud’s Last Session imagines a meeting between C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud in Freud’s London office in September 1939. Britain has just declared war on Germany, and Freud is suffering from the oral cancer that will kill him in a couple of weeks. It’s an apocalyptic moment, ideal for a debate about the existence of God, the validity of religion, and the nature of mortality between arch-rationalist Freud and Lewis, an enthusiastic, recent born-again convert to Christianity.
This also seems an ideal vehicle for faith-based Pacific Theatre, whose plays often explore questions of faith, morality and ethics. A two-hander with a single domestic set, the play fits nicely onto Pacific’s tiny church-basement stage, too.
The great debate, though, never quite lives up to its billing. Not many sparks fly and the profound questions that are raised get relatively short shrift. Most of the problems are intrinsic to the 75-minute-long script, which feels more like a sketch than a full-blown play. The balance is also tilted significantly to one side-Freud’s— although the script may not intend that. Ron Reed’s bravura performance as Freud certainly helps shape our response.
The premise is that elderly Freud has invited the young Oxford professor (not yet a famous author) to his office because he has heard that this intelligent man, himself once publically a skeptical atheist, has converted, and Freud wants to hear Lewis’ rationale. Presumably, as Lewis (Evan Frayne) points out, Freud’s illness has him wondering about issues of mortality and maybe questioning his own suppositions.
Early in their discussion Freud brings up Milton’s Paradise Lost (“my favourite book”), and they touch on the paradox that this epic poem about Christian faith, in which Milton explicitly attempts “to justify the ways of God to man,” seems to give Satan the best lines. I also thought about one of my favourite books, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and its Grand Inquisitor story, in which the devilish Cardinal has not only all the best lines but all the lines, period, in his confrontation with Christ. Both Milton and Dostoevsky use those paradoxes as powerful arguments for faith, and it feels to me as though playwright Mark St. Germain is attempting something similar here.
But as I scored this boxing match between intellectual skepticism and religious belief, Lewis is entirely overmatched. He lands hardly any blows and scores few points, although there are a couple of nice moments when he uses some of Freud’s psychoanalytic methods on the Doctor himself. Freud has the advantage of proto-Holocaust arguments. As a Jew who has had to flee Vienna ahead of the Nazis, he challenges Lewis’ Christian principles by asking whether Jews should turn the other cheek to Hitler, love their enemies and embrace the notion that the meek will inherit the earth. Like the atheist Ivan in Brothers Karamazov, Freud asks how, if there’s a God, He could allow so much suffering. Lewis doesn’t have much of a comeback.
St. Germain’s Freud is also a much wittier character than the earnest Lewis, and while Frayne plays Lewis straight ahead, Reed gives Freud some lovely twists and turns. He also gives him the anger of someone who knows he’s right and who knows he’s going to die, painfully. Reed frequently barks Freud’s lines. Director Morris Ertman has given Frayne no theatrical response to this, so Reed’s beautifully textured Freud wins the theatrical battle, too.
The argument is broken up by bursts of war news from the radio, a ringing telephone and a series of Freud’s one-way phone conversations that go nowhere. Freud also has to deal from time to time with the acute pain in his mouth, which the actors handle well, but none of these elements up the theatrical ante very much.
Carolyn Rapanos’ handsome set is dominated by a huge wooden winged Eros, a magnified version of one of the small pagan statues Freud has on his desk, pulling together one of his key psychoanalytical symbols and his obsession with religion. Luke Ertman’s music, on the other hand, playing at very low volume under the dialogue, only distracts from the important arguments that we’ve come there to hear.