By Mark St. Germain. Directed by Morris Ertman. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on Friday, April 24. Continues until May 30
This play is smaller than it appears.
In Freud’s Last Session, writer Mark St. Germain imagines a 1939 meeting between Sigmund Freud, who regarded religion as a neurotic delusion, and literary intellectual C.S. Lewis, a recent convert to Christianity. Freud tells Lewis that he has invited the young academic to his London office because “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’s motivation is obvious: at 83, he’s dying—painfully—of oral cancer, and, despite his protests, he clearly longs for a last chance to believe in God. In this sense, the play’s setup plays into Lewis’s hand: God must exist because we all want him to; even famous atheists like Freud yearn for his presence.
Freud’s rationality won’t let him succumb, however. He sees religion—correctly, in my view—as existential cowardice, an attempt to deny mortality and to impose false order on suffering. And Freud’s radio brings warnings of large-scale suffering right into the room: Hitler has invaded Poland and George VI declares war, adding, “With God’s help, we shall prevail.”
Although the play sometimes tilts in Lewis’s favour, the Oxford don’s arguments are often laughably weak. The Gospels must be divinely inspired, he reasons, because they are too badly written to be deliberate works of fiction. And he insists that the denial of God is somehow proof of God’s existence. Freud points out that he doesn’t believe in unicorns either, and asks if his skepticism on that front proves the existence of hidden herds. Lewis bases his faith on the historical existence of the Jesus of the Gospels. While Lewis’s certainty may have appeared supportable in the scholarly climate of his day, it would be more difficult to defend now.
The play doesn’t exactly push religion; it allows Lewis to appear doctrinaire, especially when he rails against Freud’s decision to commit suicide. Still, the script presupposes the currency of the question, “Does God—specifically a Christian god—exist?” And, if you’ve already answered that question for yourself, Freud’s Last Session is a dead end.
The play shows us famous men, at least one of whom had monumental ideas, but it fails to make their differences deeply engaging. And, despite glancing references to their personal lives, it largely stays on the surface of their arguments.
The acting in this production is strong. Evan Frayne makes an earnest Lewis, and Ron Reed a thoughtful, vulnerable Freud. But, while Lewis was 40 years Freud’s junior in real life, nothing like that many years separate Frayne and Reed, so a potentially interesting dynamic is lost.
In Carolyn Rapanos’s audacious set, huge wings bellow out of the upper wall in Freud’s office, referring to both the sphinx in Freud’s Oedipal myth and to Christian angels.
Pacific Theatre is a faith-based company, and, usually, their productions, which often deal with moral issues, have plenty to offer to non-Christians as well. This time around, not so much.