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If someone was completely unaware of the kinds of plays all for One productions stages, and I could only use one play as an example, their season opener, Freud’s Last Session, would be a good way to go. Not only does it represent their core mission (faith-based community theater which inspires conversation) but it’s the kind of lesser-known theater pieces which we might never see in Fort Wayne were it not for afO.
What is most significant about afO’s approach to faith in the context of their performances is that not all of the plays they stage directly address God, Jesus Christ or any particular religious ideology. Freud’s Last Session, however, tackles those topics head-on, providing moving, sometimes jarring rhetoric at the core of the debate over the existence of God or Christ’s role as the Son of God. Providing us with a theoretical battle of wits and passion between two well-known historical figures – Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis – lends an intriguing backdrop for the volatile debate which takes place over the course of 80 minutes on stage. With a lovely but unobtrusive set, basic props and minimal outside intrusion, the play focuses almost entirely on the reason Freud asks Lewis to come to his home for a visit: to have Lewis justify why he, as a former atheist himself, would become a devout Christian. Freud’s own rationale for not believing in God is put to the test, but what makes the play remarkable is that there’s no moment of sudden revelation on either side, no mea culpa or pat conversion. Each man has his say and learns a bit about the other in the process, but both are still firm in their convictions.
Of course, a two-man play like this, one which hinges entirely on dialogue rather than action, is only going to be as good as its performers, and director Lauren Nichols (who is also artistic director for afO) chose two perfect actors for these demanding roles. Larry Bower, one of the city’s most recognizable performers, was seemingly born to play Freud. The role demands intensity, particularly when addressing Freud’s incredibly painful health problems, but also the deftness to turn a phrase or line in a way to invoke laughter. Freud’s efforts to undermine Lewis’s arguments run from simple teasing to fierce arguing, and the range can be jarring for the audience, but never for Bower who completely inhabits the role.
Jeff Salisbury, also a veteran of local theatre (I will forever compare every live theater performance of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast to Salisbury’s at Civic Theatre), provides the perfect foil for Bower, offering a more soft-spoken counterpoint to Freud’s occasional rage. But never at any point does he become over-shadowed, as Salisbury perfectly captures Lewis’s quiet certainty which at its core is as intense as Freud’s. When the two clash, audience members can feel it in their guts, so real is the emotion coming from the stage. But when they both back off somewhat and share mutual fears about the start of British military action leading up to World War II or when they speak of Freud’s medical crisis, you see the respect which is at the root of their debate, making the anger more palatable.
In fact, in her opening comments Nichols emphasized the importance of being able to discuss our beliefs and our positions in a civil way. At a time when calm, rational debate – one which is not intended to convert, but rather to convey – seems to be a lost art, Freud’s Last Session demonstrates that even when pushed to the point of anger, where there is respect and open dialogue, there is always room for understanding and unity. And regardless of where individual audience members fall on the scale of faith and religious belief, the play demonstrates respect for everyone, and that is always welcome.