PLAY REVIEW: ‘Frued’s Last Session’ challenges religion, atheism

In his play “Freud’s Last Session,” author Mark St. Germain attempts a difficult task indeed — presenting a rigorous and balanced debate of complex ideas while not stinting on humor or touching emotion. St. Germain’s success and the superb quality of The Next Stage’s production make this a must-see for any theatergoer who appreciates being able to laugh and think at the same time.

This comedy/drama was “suggested” by the book “The Question of God” by Armand M. Nicholi Jr. The book is based on a college course Nicholi taught for a number of years focusing on the contrast between atheism and religious belief. He framed the arguments pro and con using the writings of famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and novelist and Christian philosopher C. S. Lewis.

Nicholi picked these two not only because they both lived during the first half of the 20th century, but because they knew of each other professionally (although they apparently had never met). He also chose them because the fact that Lewis had been an atheist until his Christian conversion well into adulthood was the perfect foil for Freud’s lifelong disbelief in any deity.

St. Germain takes this premise and then does what many writers have done before with historical characters — he asks “What if?” What if Freud and Lewis had actually met, and what if their meeting took place on Sept. 3, 1939 — the day Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany? And if they did meet, what would they have talked about?

As it turns out, they talk about much more than whether or not God exists. Amid the religious sparring, the two exchange opinions about sex, music, literature, suffering, free will and the importance of wit. Perhaps most importantly, they both reveal vital secrets about themselves and their lives which illuminate their own philosophies. And the fact that this all occurs while war looms before them makes their own intimate struggle both harrowing and deeply poignant.

St. Germain does three other things right: He keeps the proceedings to a taut 77-minute, intermissionless performance time; he structures the dialog into sections interspersed with diversions (radio announcements, phone calls, Freud’s dog); and he avoids the temptation to take sides. This assures that the audience can keep up with the whirl of thought without wearying and still have lots to mull over on the way home.

Director Richard Biever paces the show briskly with room for reflective pauses, and guides his actors around Freud’s London office in a manner that never seems artificial. He is also greatly aided by his design team (lights, Greg Ray; costumes, Pat Corey; production stage manager, Jill Brighton; graphic design, John Hruschka) who have helped to create the handsome period atmosphere the characters inhabit.

But Biever’s greatest skill can be seen in the performances of Lloyd Short (Freud) and Chris Hults (Lewis). Both actors go far beyond portraying the intellectual gifts of their characters. More importantly, they share with us the human hearts, frailties and strengths of these icons.

We may end up agreeing or disagreeing with their ideas, but we care for them both very much by the time Lewis bids goodbye to Freud.