Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain

L - R Judd Hirsch, Tom Cavanagh

By Joe Straw

In Moses and Monotheism, By Dr. Sigmund Freud “Freud argues that taking God into the mind enriches the individual immeasurably. The ability to believe in an internal, invisible God vastly improves people’s capacity for abstraction.” (Mark Edmundson, The New York Times, 09-09-2007)

I read Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain several times and tried to grasp each character’s objective. I must say I couldn’t get a handle on it and it was driving me to distraction.  

In this play, Freud is a confirmed atheist who regarded God as an illusion. In contrast, C.S. Lewis is an atheist recently turned devout Christian. Both, C.S. Lewis (age 40) and Sigmund Freud (age 83), are set in their ways: Who was going to change whom?

And then driving on the Santa Monica freeway, a revelation came to me.  It was the moment, a wonderful moment in the play, when all questions are answered.  That moment in the play, unlike freeway driving, was subtle and passed quickly. But one can look back at that magnificent visual, the theatrics of it all, and reflect on that one reason we are here.

In short, this finely textured play is about blood, blood that is drawn by the forces of intellectual warriors willing to stop at nothing to win a bloody barney.   

The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage, Dale Franzen, director, & Carolyn Rossi Copeland, Robert Stillman and Jack Thomas present The Barrington Stage Company Production, Judd Hirsch and Tom Cavanagh in Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain and directed by Tyler Merchant.  The play is suggested by The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.

The setting is September 3, 1939 in Freud’s study, 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, NW London. Freud (Judd Hirsch) sits in his study peacefully listening to a BBC announcement that Prime Minister Chamberlain will be addressing the nation soon.  The speech will be a response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.    

His study, a masterful conception by Set Designer Brain Prather, is a recreation of his office in Vienna, Austria. Brought about by fleeing a year and four months earlier, bribing everyone in the process, to get away from Hitler’s henchmen. 

As the play starts the sunlight pours through the garden window warming an ailing Dr. Sigmund Freud as he sits, in pain, with cancer eating away his oral cavity.  Calmly, he waits hoping to find an answer to his long life’s quest from a special visitor.

Freud sits motionless, still having the capacity to think, and waits patiently, until he hears his dog, Jo-Fi, barking at the visitor behind the door.

Ringing the doorbell is C. S. Lewis (Tom Cavanagh).  His couthie manner, offstage when entering Freud’s home, the tête-à-tête was en régle until he attacks the trains for his lack of punctuality.    

Freud wants to speak with Lewis whom he knows has a “superior intelligence and a talent for analytic reasoning”.  Lewis, once made aware of Freud’s intentions, is ready to accept the challenge and a mental boxing match is on.

And although Freud regards Lewis highly, Freud circles Lewis, challenging his mental strength and sizes up his opponent. Freud’s opening jab tests the manner in which Lewis handles the unexpected reprimand for his tardiness.       

“I must tell you that my doctor will be coming shortly, so our visit must be brief.” – Freud

Still, Lewis thinks he is there because one of his books has offended Freud.

“Ah.  You’ve written more than one?” – Freud

Again, another savage attack for which Lewis is not able to beat back but only to expound on his description of a character in his book “Sigismunde” in Pilgrim’s Regress.

“But I can’t apologize for taking issue with your worldview when it completely contradicts my own.” – Lewis

“Which is?” – Freud

“That there is a God.” – Lewis

Oh, so that’s why we are here.  The fight is much more serious than our opponents let on.  It is to debate the issue of God.

Freud tells him that he didn’t read Pilgrim’s Regress.  He had only gotten reports from his friend.  Freud also tells Lewis not to be “disappointed that your creation of a cartoonish character named Sigismunde Enlightenment didn’t leave me bedridden.”


Even if he is there to unconsciously debate, Lewis asks Freud why he was invited. Freud congratulates him on his excellent essay on Paradise Lost, the clash between God and Satan, to which Freud believes Satan is a brilliant creation.

But Freud has more on his mind than a discussion about Paradise Lost and slowly he enters the inner world of C.S. Lewis’ subconscious mind.  Freud waits for the right moment, accepting that it may take him more time to come to the matter at hand.

And Freud finally does.

“Then it is true, like St. Paul, you are the victim of either a conversion experience or a hallucinatory psychosis.” – Freud

“So why am I here?” – Lewis

“For one reason.  I want to learn why a man of your intellect, one who shared my convictions, could suddenly abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie.” – Freud

And the battle is on.  

Tom Cavanagh is delightful as C.S. Lewis.  It is an interesting characterization of a man who must be polite to his counterpart in the way a professor from Oxford must treat another highly regarded individual. But Lewis has a competitive edge in that he was in the military and is a war-tested combatant. Still Lewis is no intellectual match.  He is fighting a losing battle but nevertheless one that must be engaged with ferocity.  Cavanagh has a nice subtle passion that carries him through wonderful moments on stage.  But some subtleties must be thrown out the window in favor of a characterization willing to do serious battle to protect his vision in life and work. And as a character note Lewis is a world-renowned writer but Cavanagh takes little regard of the wonderful books on Freud’s shelves.  He plays with one of the artifacts and almost drops it and while it is amusing it doesn’t take the character anywhere. Slipping the artifact in his pocket would give the character more mileage. He, at times, walks a straight line with one foot in front of the other but that does little to engage the other character.  Still there are other moments  - when he suffers, his pain is clearly visible and is a very nice touch in an added scene. Also Cavanagh needs to look for something stronger other than aspirin. And if Lewis wins any argument, Cavanagh needs to show it.  The same holds true if Lewis loses an argument. All that being said, I enjoyed his performance immensely especially when the subject of the couch came up. It’s very funny and places him in an undeniably grand fantastic moment in the play. 

Judd Hirsch is marvelous is Freud. It is a perfect role for Hirsch who brings a lot of humor to the role.  The wincing at the word “God” is too marvelous for words. He is also a willing participant on this verbal battlefield holding his own and striking only when he feels the time is necessary. His avidity in argument takes its own sweet time. And only when he sees the time as right. He doesn’t count his tomorrows.  In fact (in real life) he will end his life twenty days later after this encounter. He knows the answer for which he is searching, but he wants that answer to be definitive and he wants that person to convince him that he is wrong. Freud finds his answer when he tells him “You know nothing.” and regards his counterparts’ expression of Christianity as bosh.  The thing that is especially compelling is this actors handling of the prosthetic device that seals the roof of his mouth from his nasal cavity and the unexpected cough that tears at the heart.  And yet, after this exhaustive battle, he waives those things aside, takes his right hand and vigorously scratches his left wrist, and thinks.  This is a wonderful performance and one not to miss.  

Mark St. Germain’s play is a wonderful verbal battle of wits and beliefs. It is like a boxing match with actors picking themselves off the mat from time to time. There are occasions where the actors trod to their corner to breath before they are thrust back into the ring only to run into the deadly left hook but those moments are few are far between. The play is an eighty minute one act. Probably as long as two passionate individuals with opposing views can stand to be in the same room together. 

Tyler Marchant, the director, does a very nice job, and I think I get his marvelous through line. He guides the actors giving us wonderful jaw-dropping pauses and exciting moments that lift us out of our seats.  The opening, on this particular night, hit a rough patch and it took a while for the actors to settle in for the night.  And in regard to the through line, without giving too much of the ending away, I will say this, blood takes us to the place, that no matter what the characters believe, they will understand stand one thing, that they are human, and deep down people care for each other, if only for the moment when they are together. It is a beautiful moment and one that I will remember forever.

Tuck Milligan is the alternate (understudy) for Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis but did not perform this night.

Mark Mariani, Costume Design, did a very nice job, placing the actors in 1939 time period.

Clifton Taylor was responsible for the Lighting Design.

Beth Lake was responsible for the Sound Design and there were many marvelous sound cues.  One mention about the sound was a slight difficulty in hearing the actors, a tinny sound coming from one of the actors as he brushed against a mic and coughs or sneezes would obliterate the actor’s words. I’ve never experienced that problem at The Broad, as the sound is always razor sharp. 

Donald William Myers was the Production Stage Manager.

CRC Prodcuctions/Robert E. Schneider is the General Management.

Pat McCorkel Casting, CSA was responsible for the Casting.

Run! And take a priest or your analyst, or both.  And you will all have a great time.  

Through February 10, 2013