A meeting of faith and science
Play imagines clash of ideas of two great minds
PITTSFIELD - Mark St. Germain has constructed an entire one-act play out of one simple “what if’’: What if Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis had met?
St. Germain got the idea from a book by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr., “The Question of God’’ - a question to which, in the simplest terms, Lewis answered Yes and Freud No. But that exchange wouldn’t take more than a minute, so in “Freud’s Last Session’’ St. Germain embellishes it with a host of arguments, witticisms, and further questions, many of them drawn from the written work of the two men themselves.
Nicholi’s book apparently notes that Freud, living in London in 1939 and shortly before killing himself to end his battle with oral cancer, had been visited by an unnamed Oxford don. And that professor could, Nicholi speculates, have been Lewis, not yet famous as a popularizing Christian theologian and children’s book writer.
The setting, on the eve of open war, and the characters, both powerful and charming proselytizers, offer plenty of dramatic possibilities, of which St. Germain makes good use. And certainly the debate between faith and reason seems particularly relevant these days.
Still, it’s hard not to have such a play turn into a kind of talking-heads tour of big ideas, and “Freud’s Last Session,’’ now receiving its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company after a staged reading there last year, doesn’t always avoid this pitfall. It is an extremely talky play, confined as it is to Freud’s study (meticulously and beautifully designed by Brian Prather) and featuring no action more energetic than Freud’s periodic switching on of his radio to get the latest news or his agonized fiddlings with the oral prosthesis necessitated by his cancer.
The good news is that the talk is often lively, intelligent, and engaging - perhaps even more so for those audience members who have not read widely in either Freud or Lewis. (And it’s hard to imagine many people outside of academe who’ve read deeply in both.) Freud questions Lewis bluntly about his conversion from atheism to Christianity at 33 (about eight years before this encounter would have taken place); Lewis pushes back with equal vigor, refusing to concede that faith and reason cannot coexist.
None of the arguments on either side is likely to change anyone’s mind, and to his credit St. Germain seems not to weight the debate either way. (It is giving nothing away to note that the question of God’s existence is not resolved in one 75-minute play.) Believers and atheists alike will find many familiar points here, while St. Germain’s skillful interweaving of Freud’s and Lewis’s words will make much of the discussion seem fresh even to those for whom it’s well-trod ground.
Martin Rayner makes an acerbic and keen-eyed Freud, and he plays the physical frailty just plainly enough: It’s always there, but it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the performance. Mark H. Dold, meanwhile, is far better looking than Lewis could ever have dreamed of being, but his youthful grace provides a better contrast to the older Freud than a more accurately pudgy and bald-pated Lewis would have. And, perhaps because it is such a festival of talking heads, what the actors say matters more than how they look while saying it.
Tyler Marchant’s direction keeps the talk flowing rhythmically, with the periodic interruptions for those news bulletins only gradually becoming too obvious as the schematic pauses they are. The play ebbs and flows, hits a sudden and slightly forced moment of intimacy, then fades gently away; we are left with the sense that not much has changed in the mind or heart of either man.
Then again, we are also left with the sense that the question of God is one that each answers for himself, and that no one else can ever really know just how that answer goes.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.