A Conversation Between Giants
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Some plays are a joy to direct because they are so well-constructed, so deftly written. Some are a pleasure because of the actors involved, their talent, wit and amiability. And some productions are so full of important ideas that it is a privilege to work on them.
Freud’s Last Session, which opens afO’s 2016-2017 season, fits comfortably into all those categories for me. Mark St. Germain’s award-winning script has been acclaimed regionally and Off-Broadway. His portrayal of two intellectual giants of the 20th century – the “father of psychiatry,”
Sigmund Freud and Christian apologist and author C.S. Lewis – is balanced and gripping; their ideas are clearly stated and passionately expressed. Beyond that, working with the likes of Larry Bower as Freud and Jeff Salisbury as Lewis is sheer delight.
St. Germain’s play had a curious genesis: it was suggested by a book, The Question of God, by Dr. Armand Nicholi. Nicholi, a professor of psychiatry, has taught a course on Freud and Lewis at Harvard Medical School for over 30 years. The book arose from his wildly popular course and was the basis of a PBS documentary of the same name. In it, Nicholi compares and contrasts the backgrounds and beliefs of these two men who were so influential in their respective fields.
The play takes some of these competing ideas and frames them in the midst of a highly dramatic moment in history: the begining of WWII. Freud and his family had emigrated to London in 1938 after Nazi persecution of Jews in Vienna became intolerable. According to the playwright there is evidence that an Oxford professor visited Freud at his London home. “What if,” asks the playwright, “that professor were C.S. Lewis?” Lewis, at Freud’s invitation, arrives for a visit on September 3, 1939, the day England declares war on Germany.
The war of words that takes place over the course of the play is often very funny; these men are witty as well as intelligent. Their discussion is wide-ranging, covering their childhood, their personal tastes and favorite authors, as well as their opposing views on God and religion. The playwright has remarked that he doesn’t think any audience member coming to the play convinced of one position or the other will go away with a changed mind. But perhaps many of us will be better informed in general – and more appreciative of the achievements of both these men.
I can certainly promise an evening of thought-provoking entertainment which will quite likely inspire more wide-ranging conversations after the play is over. And isn’t that, after all, the mark of good theater?