Faith versus reason rests at the center of playwright Mark St. Germain’s two-man theological debate. Theater J returns to one of its standard forays into questions concerning the existence of God, which it did to great success in 2005 with Hyam Maccoby’s theological argument The Disputation and more recently with David Ives’ Spinoza-infused drama New Jerusalem.
Freud’s Last Session is a lesser work that wrestles with some of the same questions of atheism and belief, pitting the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, against a young returnee to Christianity, British author and scholar C.S. Lewis (yes, the one who wrote the Narnia books, which themselves carry allusions to Christian theology).
The pair banter and verbally browbeat one another in a meandering 90-minute conversation about the existence of God and the reasons for human suffering. The handsome Theater J production, winding down a season rife with hot topics, is onstage at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater through June 29.
St. Germain based this work on Armand Nicholi’s book The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, which also inspired a PBS television special. At just 90 minutes, the play takes a cursory look at some deep existential questions and as erudite as the two men are, the work is rather heavy-handed and didactic.
Set in Deb Booth’s glorious replica of Freud’s book- and artifact-filled office, frequent Theater J actor Rick Foucheux imbues Freud with a witty, disarming demeanor that belies the great innovator’s reputation as a serious and probing scientist and analyst. This is Freud at the end of his life, suffering from oral cancer. Foucheux is tasked with playing a dying man, but one still invested in the life and magnitude of ideas. His beard and hair whitened, his gait lopsided and brow furrowed, Foucheux gives his Freud a touch of a German accent and more than a shmear of Jewish wit and dry humor. As Freud’s younger foil Lewis, Todd Scofield is the weaker actor of the pair. He wavers on his Irish/English accent and seems unsettled in his role as the young intellectual sparring partner of the great Freud.
The play, set amid World War II when London was under siege, facing air raids, is a drama of the mind — as any work focusing so pointedly on Freud must be. But there are
moments of personal reflection, fear, nods to weaknesses or failings: Freud recalls his own encounters with anti-Semitism and Nazism. Raised in a Christian family, Lewis became an atheist at 15, but as a young man early in his writing and teaching career, he returned to Christianity. Freud, raised in an observant Jewish home, rejected a belief in God and sought rational answers for life’s biggest questions.
Lewis tangles with Freud, trying to convince him of God. Freud attacks Lewis’ belief as simplistic, noting: “things are simple only when you choose not to examine them.” Foucheux as Freud revels in the provocative repartee, while Scofield’s Lewis is far less at ease in the work. Director Serge Seiden of Studio Theatre highlights the men’s contradictions and stages a somewhat gory scene featuring the analyst’s bloody sputum.
While there’s enough in the work to keep many engaged in the wordy debate, at some moments the barometer dips too far and attention wanders. Theater J, of course, does its best work when it uses its stage to engage audiences in tough and significant topical issues. The question of whether there is or isn’t a God should be a central one in a theater with a dominant Jewish voice and point of view. That this play wrestles with it is commendable. As a small work that asks large questions, Freud’s Last Session does what Theater J intended — gets audiences thinking about belief, spiritual conversions, suffering and legacies — without incendiary results. For this reviewer, though, the result was only lukewarm. n
Freud’s Last Session is onstage through June 29 at the DCJCC in the District. Tickets from $35. Call (800) 494-8497 or visit online.