Freud’s Last Session
I was excited to see Taproot's production of "Freud's Last Session", written by Mark St. Germain and winner of the 2011 Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best Play. I adore the writing of C.S. Lewis, and I love the idea of a conversation between Sigmund Freud, the atheist father of psychotherapy, and C.S. Lewis, a Christian author. But I did worry. All this God stuff: would it be dry and pompous? I drank plenty of black tea to caffeinate myself just in case.
I needn't have worried. The play is funny and fast-paced with a thoughtful humanity to it. Based on a book by Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr., a professor who collected his course material on the two men into a book called "The Question of God," "Freud's Last Session" has an elderly and dying Freud inviting the dashing 40-year-old Lewis for tea and conversation. The conversation itself is a fiction created by St. Germain, but the characters and their beliefs are drawn from history.
I admit I've read enough Lewis that he has a particular voice in my head, and it took me a while to reconcile my own image with the character as portrayed by Matt Shimkus. But Shimkus does a tremendous job of carrying Lewis from brash insecure bluster on first meeting Freud into a warm humor and passion as he becomes more comfortable.
Nolan Palmer puts in a remarkable performance as Sigmund Freud, showing Freud meeting the world with curiosity laced with a dry wit even as he faces his death. When Lewis comments that Freud's oral cancer must be painful, Freud replies, "It is and more so when I speak, but as you can see my not speaking is unlikely."
The onset of World War II as a backdrop for the conversation allows the characters to alternate between a passionate discourse on the existence of God, and the very human, very tangible histories of both men with war and fear and love and pain. Throughout the play, we hear bits of radio reports and air raid sirens, and the radio tube casts a warm glow into Freud's comfortable study (designed by Mark Lund).
The war provides the characters both a context and a reason for sharing personal stories with one another. Both men -- Freud with his ambivalence about his Jewish father and his own flight from Germany in the face of the Nazis, and Lewis with his evident post-traumatic stress disorder left over from serving in World War I -- become real, vulnerable people to us, not just talking heads.
Eventually the men relax enough to become playful with one another, making sly jokes about the psychoanalyst's couch in the center of the room, using their gas masks to make farting noises, and rearranging Freud's collection of figurines to mess with each other.
They also pull no punches in their conversation. At one point, Lewis brings up the Bible, and Freud says, "Ah, the Bible! For a minute I thought you were thinking for yourself!" But by sharing their deepest beliefs, they create an intimacy with one another, and when Freud needs care he normally only accepts from his daughter, he turns to Lewis.
Lewis raises perhaps the central question of the play when, in exasperation, he wonders why Freud has invited him at all. What's the point of discussion when they've each settled their faith or lack of it? Neither of them manages to change each other's mind by the end, but the bond created by the exchange of ideas between two intelligent men in search of truth answers that question beautifully.
Scott Nolte directs this lively imagined conversation, which runs about 75 minutes without intermission. Even if you have no interest in the issues raised, go for the wonderfully written script of these two carefully drawn, larger than life historical figures brought engagingly to life by the performances of Palmer and Shimkus.
"Freud’s Last Session" has been extended through April 28 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-781-9707 or visit online at taproottheatre.org.