For theatre fans in Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana, it's always exciting to discover what each new season will bring to our many wonderful stages. That seems especially true for fans of all for One productions, which each year finds plays which are either rarely seen (as in some of the greatest works of classic literature) or perhaps even little known. Case in point, their opening production of the 2016-17 season, Freud's Last Session, which is definitely outside the box but presents the themes afO has become known for.
With his imagined interplay between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, playwright Mark St. Germain taps into a fascinating idea, one which he's recently utilized again with a play about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway: What would it be like to listen to these two interesting and very different men talk about their world views, their perspectives, their differences. Creating discussion-worthy performance is what afO Artistic Director Lauren Nichols looks for when she's determining the content of the company's seasons, and it's why this play in particular intrigued her.
"The play was well-received when it ran in New York; it just hasn't been done here," she says. "C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite writers, and the story is based on many historical facts. Freud has emigrated to London a year or two before the story takes place, and he was already dying of cancer. There's no evidence that Freud ever visited Lewis, but it asks 'what if' and juxtaposes these two great 20th century figures."
The play is based on a book, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Armand Nicholi, the first imagining of these legendary figures debating the central beliefs of their life. Key among them is the belief in God: Lewis was a believer; Freud was not. Tackling lofty questions like that is also at the core of all for One productions, a faith-based company which prefers to present materials with unique takes on religion and spirituality rather than preaching from the theatre pulpit. Looking at the debate frankly through the eyes of two very intelligent and well-read men makes for some thought-provoking theatre.
"Nicholi taught a course which presented Freud's views of religion and then used Lewis to provide the counter-argument," says Nichols. "He presents the parallels between their lives, how they overlapped and diverged, and then presents it as a dialogue between these two giants. St. Germain's script is fascinating since he presents both positions strongly. There's no straw man in the script since neither is likely to have his mind changed by the other."
Beyond the debate content, which cuts deeply into afO's mission, Nichols also appreciates the tenor of the discussion between these two strong figures.
"I'm especially taken with this in an election year, seeing a discussion like this done civilly and with great humor. Lewis comes off as very funny and off-the-cuff. Freud is more dour, but it's easy to understand that at this point he was probably in great pain."
Playing the leads will be longtime local radio, television and theater performer Larry Bower, who will tackle the role of Freud, and Jeff Salisbury, himself a veteran of Fort Wayne theater as well as the technical director of afO. Nichols had a couple of other thoughts before settling on the pair, but ultimately she found the perfect combination.
"I was toying with the idea of casting a couple of other actors, but neither was as physically close to Freud and Lewis. When I asked Jeff if he was interested in playing Lewis, he gasped. I said, 'I'll take that as a yes.'"
With only two actors and a play which runs less than 90 minutes, the dialogue is likely to be brisk, which is easily imagined when considering each man's personality. Freud, himself a vocal atheist, was perplexed how a former atheist like Lewis could come to believe in God. Lewis, on the other hand, was a late bloomer in many ways, not finding success as a writer until 40. With the story taking place on a historic date - September 3, 1939 - Nichols is able to present many intriguing pieces of the world as it existed on that day.
"It's a fascinating show because it touches on philosophy, psychology, history, theology. And the backdrop is Chamberlain's radio address as England declares war on Germany, so there are a lot of things going on which add to the story."
With so many story elements, Nichols hopes to have a "talk-back" session following the Sunday matinee, an opportunity to get feedback and discussion with the audience, itself a fascinating prospect. Freud's Last Session is just one example of an interesting season ahead for afO. Next up in November will be The Wind and the Willows, a story Nichols was surprised to learn hadn't been done in Fort Wayne.
"I was amazed that no one has done an adaptation because Harvey Cocks has done a gazillion adaptations of children's literature over the years. This adaptation is very close to the book, and I'm always happy to present quality adaptations of classic children's literature."
Nichols is also excited to present Romeo & Juliet shortly after Valentine's Day, a perfect gift for that special someone. Of course, the ironic aspect of the romantic allure of Romeo & Juliet is that things don't turn out very well for the star-crossed lovers, but Nichols remembers fondly her first time seeing a performance.
"It was the first Shakespeare production I'd seen, and I was in high school. It was Larry Life's production, and I was completely gripped by it. I remember reading a quote of his once that I've never forgotten. He said 'If the audience doesn't care so much about the performance that they don't hope it ends differently this time, then you haven't done your job.' I was as affected by that as I have been any production I've ever seen."The season closes with A Wrinkle in Time, a book which has been beloved for years. The production, which will be directed by Salisbury, promises to be memorable.
"We are pulling out all the stops technically for this show," says Nichols. "And that's all I'm going to say!"
With this second season staged at the ArtsLab black box in the Auer Center on East Main Street, Nichols feels that the new environment has presented an embarrassment of riches in terms of staging, freedom she said seemed overwhelming at first, but is now very welcome. As she already thinks about the seasons ahead, that new home provides many new possibilities.
"Now whenever I look at a script, I find myself thinking 'What should the staging be for this?' We have different staging set-ups for all of our shows this year, and one we have never used before. So we are very happy to have our new home."