Playwright Mark St. Germain’s extraordinary off-Broadway hit, Freud’s Last Session (suggested by the book The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.) puts the renowned psychoanalyst and confirmed atheist in head-to-head intellectual debate with C. S. Lewis (Martyn Stanbridge), a noted author, Oxford professor and mid-life, Christian convert. In a gripping eighty-minute performance, Sigmund Freud (Martin Rayner) spars with Lewis over the notion of the presence of God in the world. Sound dull? Not for a minute! The fictional scene occurs in London just after the Nazis kicked off the Second World War with the invasion of Poland. Freud had fled Vienna in 1938 landing in London where he continued his practice until he died of mouth cancer just twenty days after the setting of the play.
The meeting is adversarial. Freud was a notorious atheist keen to secure his intellectual legacy before his time runs out, while Lewis, with his soft, seemingly inchoate Christian notions, is firm in the comfort of the unknowable deity. The repartee is bright, sharp and often bitter. And always there is cancer lurking, waiting to be an issue. If one is aware of the great Freud’s sixteen-year struggle with the disease, the clues are there to be recognized early on. Mr. Rayner’s subtle movements of his mouth and a certain occasional hoarseness of speech indicate the problem before it is spoken of in the script. At a certain point in the play, Freud’s discomfort turns desperate in a scene that had this audience member leaning forward in horror. Mr. Stanbridge’s C. S. Lewis, is every bit the intellectual equal of Freud, deftly parrying the bitter thrusts and barbs of the dying man. And yet there is common ground between the adversaries. There is kindness, courtesy, and a great deal of humor. In fact, a brilliant joke caps the performance. Mssrs. Rayner and Stanbridge inhabit their characters flawlessly.
The outside world punctuates the action. The radio comes alive with news bulletins and excerpts of speeches by Prime Minister Chamberlain and King George VI. A test of air raid sirens has both men scrambling for their gas masks. The incident calls up memories of Lewis’s bitter experiences as a soldier in World War I.
Under the keen direction of Robert Mandel, the production is handsomely mounted in the snug confines of Odyssey’s Theatre 2. Freud’s office, complete with the de rigueur couch, is wonderfully realized in Pete Hickok’s excellent scenic design, which is marvelously detailed with loaded bookshelves, oriental carpets, and the Doctor’s collection of ancient artifacts (kudos to prop master Josh LaCour). Lighting by Derrick McDaniel is subtle and transparent. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design is superb, and Kim DeShazo’s costume design supports period, character and action. The stage is managed by Emma Whitley.
As I filed out of the theatre at the end of the performance, I passed by a picture that looked familiar. A little research told me it was a copy of a lithograph that Freud actually had in his consulting room—André Brouillet’s 1887 “A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière.” It is a fine example of scenic thoroughness.
Freud’s Last Session is theatre at its finest with great performers, a top notch script, and exquisite production design all the way around. It is easy to see why this terrific company has been around for well over forty years. Readers, it would be sad if you missed this show!
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s production of Freud’s Last Session continues through March 4 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.