What if Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, and C.S. Lewis, author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” books, had sat down one day and talked? Do you think the subject of God might have come up? Is the pope Catholic?
Mark St. Germain’s one-act play Freud’s Last Session, now on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, imagines just such a scenario. It pits fierce atheist Freud against converted Christian Lewis in a battle of beliefs and wills, and it all happens on the exact day that Britain entered World War II. The premise is intriguing, but does it make for effective, impactful theater? It does in this North Coast Rep production thanks to winning performances by Bruce Turk as Lewis and, even more so, Michael Santo as Freud, who in St. Germain’s play is dying of oral cancer but is strong enough to hold his own in a philosophical fight.
That Freud’s Last Session rises above what could have been talking heads spouting diametrically opposed views about God’s existence (or non-existence), sexuality (of course – it’s Freud!) and the universe is the product of the actors’ commitment to their characters. Neither stops to speechify without directly addressing the other, believably sustaining the impression of two unwavering intellectuals respecting each other’s strengths even as they discover each other’s weaknesses. Director David Ellenstein keeps the pacing brisk, with both men usually on their feet and no stereotypical positioning of an upright Freud in chair and Lewis reclined on shrink’s couch.
Besides the specter of the coming war, the fictional visit of Lewis to Freud’s serene study (rich scenic design by Marty Burnett) is complicated by the doctor’s worsening illness, which is depicted in vivid blood-red in one of the play’s most audience-silencing junctures. Santo and Turk operate in an atmosphere of foreboding and tension, yet their debate is animated and spiced with bits of humor.
Freud’s Last Session succeeds not only in shining a light on two fascinating historical figures, but also in provoking critical thought about the most enigmatic complexities of life and afterlife.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.