Theater J Freud’s Last SessionBy Adam Sylvain • May 30th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Theater J: (Info) (Web)
Theater J, Washington DC
Through July 6th
80 minutes without intermission
$50-$65/$45-$60 Senior, Member/$35-$50 Military/$25 35 and Under
Reviewed May 24th, 2014
With all of London anguished by fear that Hitler’s war will soon reach their city, atheist physician Sigmund Freud invites Oxford professor C.S. Lewis into his study for a lively debate, addressing questions like: Does God exist? Do humans possess an innate moral conscience? How can a believer adequately explain the quandaries of war, pain, sickness, and death?
Such is the opening scene of Mark St. Germain’s production, Freud’s Last Session; with performances scheduled at Washington DC’s Jewish Community Center Theater J through July 6. The 80-minute play features just two actors and one set; the parquet wood-floored study of Freud, adorned with a carefully arranged bookshelf, floor to ceiling drapes, and an examination couch — which becomes an object of jest throughout.
While an entertaining interplay of opposing worldviews, the lack of an organic exchange of ideas can make the sequences seem too contrived at times — particularly for those familiar with C.S. Lewis’ and Freud’s canon of work, from which their debate heavily draws.
Rick Foucheux’s admirable portrayal of Freud stands out, with the psychoanalyst’s constant questioning halted only by the painful, oral cancer-induced coughing fits that leave him with a bloody rag in his hands; yet nonetheless determined to proceed in defense of all things proven by facts, logic, and empirical observations. He calls Darwin a personal “saint” and derides C.S. Lewis — a hailed scholar and one-time atheist — for being swept up in the “fairytale” of religion.
For his part, Todd Scofield, playing the part of Lewis, deftly calls out the seeming contradictions in Foucheux’s rigid opposition to religious belief; among them the assemblage of religious artifacts carefully arranged on Freud’s desk, as well as the physician’s own admission that he drew comfort from reading the Christian-themed epic, Paradise Lost.
Still, it’s hard not to notice Lewis’ character as the less dynamic of the pair; stiffer both in movement and in speech. As an admirer of the famed literary scholar and member of the Oxford writing group the Inklings, of which J.R.R. Tolkien was also a part, I felt Lewis’ role seemed too defensive and less reliant on the wit and confidence that compelled the 20th century writer to produce a swath of heavily praised Christian writings and apologia.
There were other details from Lewis’ own life that seemed appropriate to introduce, yet were not discussed in the play; among them the fact that his mother — Flora Hamilton Lewis — suffered her own fatal bout of cancer, an experience believed to influence C.S. Lewis’ later conversion. While Lewis does surmise that Freud’s declining health could be leading him to reconsider a belief in God, perhaps in light of his mortality, the close-to-heart experience from Lewis’ childhood was never mentioned.
It’s the painful cancer that seems to drive a wedge deeper in Freud’s resistance to Lewis’ claims that moral consciousness and religious belief are inclinations inscribed on the human heart from birth.
“Is killing me God’s revenge?” asks an exasperated Freud, to which C.S. Lewis confesses, “I do not know.”
For Freud, all circumstance, all decision-making, all belief, can be explained through a logical interpretation of one’s own life experiences. In the case of Lewis, Freud explains away the Oxford writer’s flight to Christianity as a desperate attempt to resolve adolescent “daddy issues,” since Lewis was never close to his biological father from birth.
Another of Freud’s notable lines in the play illustrates this point: “Religion has made the world his nursery.” The pronoun his emphasizes another contention of Freud’s; that religion is an oppressive tool of patriarchal institutions determined to wield power.
Despite the spirited opposition, Lewis does continue to nudge Freud nearer to agnosticism. After sharing a story about a time he spent sick in the hospital, aided by a diminutive man, Freud suggests that there has never been a better joke than that — “an eminent intellectual, saved by a dwarf,” to which Lewis replies, “If it was a joke, who made it?”
But in a play focused on speech and debate, it was an unspoken act that seemed to speak the loudest, and in effect, draw the two men closer than any words they shared. Throughout the play, as Freud was repeatedly interrupted by writhing pain, he tells Lewis that his daughter Anna is the only person he entrusts to remove his mouthpiece and clean it to help assuage the pain.
But as the cancer becomes too much to bear, Lewis steps in, helps the suffering man to his desk chair and proceeds to remove the prostheses. While the play ends relatively unceremoniously — with a simple shake of the hands — it’s hard not to think that exchange trumped the rest.
- Freud: Rick Foucheux
- C.S. Lewis: Todd Scofield
Disclaimer: The purchased his own tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
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Adam Sylvain is a high school teacher and freelance writer in Northern Virginia. When not occupying a classroom, or meeting a deadline, he enjoys experiencing live theater, getting outdoors, and smoking an occasional tobacco pipe filled with rum tobacco.