Matt Shimkus as C.S. Lewis and Nolan Palmer as Sigmund Freud in Freud’s Last Session
Written around 385 BC, Plato’s Symposium (“drinking party”) portrays seven celebrated minds of Ancient Greece (Aristophanes, Socrates, others) discussing the origin, nature, and purpose of love, attendees taking turns delivering speeches on the subject. It’s very cerebral. In a similar fashion, Hayley Heaton’s The Man in the Newspaper Hat, which ran at Odd Duck and I reviewed last November, sets Elizabeth Bishop to spar with Ezra Pound about the social responsibilities of the poet. It’s very cerebral. Currently enjoying an long Off-Broadway run, playwright Mark St. Germain’s Freud’s Last Session is having a go at the enduringly popular concept, pitting a curmudgeonly Sigmund Freud (Nolan Palmer) against a young, wide-eyed C.S. Lewis (Matt Shimkus). Suggested by The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and The Meaning of Life(2002), by Harvard professor of psychology Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., the play sets the devout atheist and the Christian apologist out to discuss, yes, God. The award-winning show, now up at Taproot for its West Coast premiere, is very cerebral.
Freud is our symposiarch, having invited Lewis, not yet a famous author but a rising academic star at Oxford, to tea. Aware of much of one another’s work, reputation, and ideological perspective, the men are at the outset mutually understood to be, in many ways, in diametric opposition. Lewis in particular, unsure of what Freud is after in sending for him, is wary, showing up in rhetorical boxing gloves and wearing a moralistic mouthguard, suspecting that the notorious and incendiary father of psychoanalysis is looking to scrap.
In large part, of course, Lewis is correct. But it’s the same curiosity that inclines Freud to open his doors to Lewis that inclines Lewis to pass through them. Admiring of one another’s intellectual powers, each represents something of a threat to the other. “How can someone as bright as you not think at all like me?” So as the men land blows and enjoy superficial successes in momentarily flummoxing one another, they also seek common footing. Throughout the discourse their civility remains as remarkable as the cognitive acrobatics they perform.
But the play is not dramatically active. Presumably in an effort to instill the encounter with a degree of urgency–neither man runs any danger of losing his cool, both being resiliently articulate and self-assured–it is set on September 03, 1939, The day Great Britain declared war on Germany (or, if you prefer, the day of King George VI’s famous speech as portrayed in The King’s Speech). We hear the blare of air raid sirens, and are updated on the escalation to WWII by way of periodic radio broadcast (for which the sound design is handled wonderfully).
Along with the acknowledgment of impending war, a second cloud looms over the men in Freud’s impending death. Rapidly succumbing to oral cancer, Freud, bleeding from the mouth, sometimes reduced to debilitating fits of coughing, accepts that his days are numbered, and awaits an end to a constant and increasing suffering. Freud dies on the 23rd of the same month, not even three weeks after the imagined conversation.
Mark Lund’s beautiful set references photographs of Freud’s actual London office, so it looks very much like this. On Taproot’s deep thrust stage, the realistic set endows the production with an intimate and realistic quality, attributable of a commendable attention and fidelity to detail.
Both performances in the two-man show are nuanced, and generally well thought out. Palmer’s Freud is attentive and cocksure, if at times too rigidly controlling and even didactic to allow sufficient room for the subtleties of Freud’s enormous personality and voice to play. He’s dominant. Shimkus’ Lewis is witty and endearing, if perhaps too polite and yielding to be much of a threat to the formidable Freud. Lewis is cordially submissive. Though the cards of the conversation are stacked in Freud’s favor, the textual fact remains that there’s not much preventing either man from ending the conversation (and the play) at any moment anyway. The point for both men is the fun of the mindgame. Freud might say the objective of the conversation is the agreeable stimulation of one another’s mental phalli, and not to settle much of anything.
I would be hard-pressed to assume that the East Coast productions of Freud’s Last Session are any more realistic or affecting than the offering at Taproot. The text is done justice, but the text is relatively dry and at times lagging. If you have a taste for patient, quiet conversation plays, consider ruminating on this one, which is loaded with rhetoric, demonstration, and gentlemanly posturing and point-proving.
Wednesday through Saturday (no show Wed, April 25), through April 28, times vary // Taproot Theatre Company, 204 North 85th Street // $22 – $37 (student, senior, youth, and group discounts available), tickets available here