At TheaterWorks: 'Freud's Last Session' poses life questions on a late afternoon


HARTFORD, Conn. -- History tells us that philosopher, theologian, writer, poet C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis, never met. But what if they had?

Working from a chance reference in a book, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr's "The Question of God," to a meeting in 1939 between Freud and an unnamed Oxford don shortly before Freud committed suicide to end his grueling fight with a virulent oral cancer, playwright Mark St. Germain imagines in his remarkably crafted play, "Freud's Last Session," what might have occurred if that unnamed don had, in fact, been Lewis.

The result, particularly in the invigorating, bracingly clean, clear and lucid production St. Germain's play is being given at TheaterWorks, is a thoroughly riveting play about language, ideas, the existence of God, the non-existence of God, faith and mortality.

The setting -- splendidly designed by Evan Adamson with a telling attention to detail -- is the study in Freud's home in the outskirts of London.

Freud (a compelling and vigorous Kenneth Tigar), 83, has invited to his home the considerably younger, by 43 years, Lewis (an equally vigorous and engaging Jonathan Crombie).

Lewis suspects Freud will want him to discuss his satiric potrait of Freud in his book, "Pilgrim's Regress." But Freud is after bigger stuff. With mortality facing him squarely and an atheism shaped by a deeply personal loss and the rise of Adolf Hitler, Freud is intrigued by Lewis' inexplicable sudden shift from a man who shared Freud's conviction about the nonexistence of God to someone who could, Freud says, "embrace a lie" (that God, in fact, exists). He wants to know why.

Against the background of the prime minister's address to the nation declaring war on Germany, the sound of military planes overhead and the intermittent strains of a classical music concert on the BBC. Freud and Lewis wrestle -- with mutual respect, curiosity, wit and relentless probing -- with meaningful questions.

That St. Germain's writing and these performances are never as weighty as the subjects under discussion is the product of shrewd writing and craftsmanship, and compassionate, smart playing and direction.

Lewis responds to Freud's questioning of his conversion with another question "What if (God's existence) isn't a lie? Have you considered how terrifying it might be to realize that you are wrong?"

"No more than it would be for you ," Freud replies.

But later, after Lewis' departure, as Tigar's Freud, alone in his study, moves contemplatively amid the increasing shadows of his life and the late afternoon light, Lewis' question, "What if it (God's existence) isn't a lie?" seems to register, ever so slightly, across Freud's eyes, almost as if he is searching for a reason to believe that God does, indeed, exist. The terror, even in that scant moment, is formidable.


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