Sparring about the existence of God creates fascinating drama at Actors’ Summit in Akron in the absorbing play Freud’s Last Session, by Mark St. Germain.
This work gets into the inner psyches, belief systems and hearts of two seminal figures of the 20th century — Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis — as they engage in a battle of intellect in Freud’s London study. Given such weighty topics, St. Germain never ventures too far into the highbrow, but rather delivers an entertaining play full of humor and heart.
Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, has fled Nazi persecution in Austria and has invited young Oxford professor Lewis to visit him. The year is 1939, on the day England enters World War II. In Freud’s beautifully appointed study, designed by Rory Wohl with numerous richly colored Persian rugs, the psychotherapist’s comfy-looking couch is ever present.
Actors Brian Zoldessy and Keith Stevens create subtle humor as Freud and Lewis tease each other about who needs to lie on the couch. One of the greatest things about this play is that the two characters take turns rising to the top in their intellectual power struggle, with each at times needing the couch as he reveals his deepest fears or pain.
Zoldessy, a theater professor and director at Cuyahoga Community College, brilliantly brings to life Freud’s crusty, dry humor as well as his physical infirmity at age 83. The sparring is more friendly than adversarial, as these men ultimately prove that they respect each other.
Under Neil Thackaberry’s direction, the chemistry in this two-man show is delightful. Zoldessy, making his Actors’ Summit debut, has an impressive resume including work on and Off-Broadway as well as in TV and film. (Eight years ago, his work was unforgettable as the neurotic, mentally disabled Arnold in The Boys Next Door at Porthouse Theatre.)
Stevens, a regular at Actors’ Summit, is a multitalented actor who always delivers an excellent performance. The two actors have the famous Actors’ Studio in common: Stevens is a lifetime member after studying there in New York, and Zoldessy has been associated with the Actors’ Studio both in New York and in Los Angeles.
Zoldessy evokes Freud’s curmudgeonliness and Stevens paints a more proper, restrained Lewis. A big commonality is their resentment of their fathers: Freud despised his Orthodox Jewish father as a “bitter failure” and Lewis disliked his tyrant father intensely.
This fictional story, suggested by The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr., occurs 20 days before Freud’s death. It is a study in contrasts, as Freud suffers from inoperable oral cancer and Lewis is headed toward the high points of his career, having not yet written The Chronicles of Narnia or The Screwtape Letters. St. Germain employs rich language and brutal imagery as Lewis speaks of the hell of World War I and Freud, at times choking on his own blood, reveals the physical agony of having his upper jaw replaced by an implant.
So why has Freud invited Lewis to his home? The psychoanalyst reveals that he wants to learn how an intellectual can “abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie’’ — what he calls religion.
Zoldessy’s Freud argues vehemently against religion, yelling that God cannot be proven historically. Lewis says his religious conversion was slow but his belief in Jesus as the son of God is now simple.
“Things are simple only when you choose not to examine them,’’ Freud counters. That’s just one of the volleys in their debates about religion, morality, war and sex.
In Freud’s Last Session, Zoldessy and Stevens play a moment of panic beautifully, when air raid sirens go off and the men scramble for gas masks. This scene reveals that Lewis, recently converted to Christianity, is not comfortable about meeting his maker and Freud, who had said he is ready to die, really isn’t.
This drama is a work of fiction but it explores some of the weightiest issues of 1939 Europe. Against the backdrop of World War II, it captures a tumultuous moment in world history and brings alive what might have been, had such a meeting between these two cultural giants actually occurred.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.