Review: STL Rep's 'Freud's Last Session,' or C.S. Lewis Visits For A Nice Kibbitz

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Bring two soaring intellectuals together—one a staunch atheist and the other a Christian apologist—and let them debate on the existence of God. That’s the essence of Mark St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session,” a play that imagines a meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis currently playing at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. There’s plenty of clever dialogue and verbal volleys that entertain, but overall, fail to surprise, making this meeting-of-the-massive-minds more of an exhibition match than an honest-to-God championship that someone could, if their arguments were good enough, actually win. But the performances are another story. The fine acting elevates the production to a higher level altogether.

2. Jim Butz as C.S. Lewis and Barry Mulholland as Sigmund Freud. ©Photo by Eric Woolsey.

2. Jim Butz as C.S. Lewis and Barry Mulholland as Sigmund Freud. ©Photo by Eric Woolsey.

In 1939 on the eve of World War II, Sigmund Freud (Barry Mulholland) listens to the radio for word on the inevitable Nazi bomb raid, but the impending war with the Germans is of little concern compared to the coming war of religious ideologies when devout Anglican C.S. Lewis (Jim Butz) arrives for a visit. Lots of snappy dialogue ensues, and thanks to the enlightened performances by Mulholland as Freud (strong and dominant while physically crookbacked with age and spine-wracking pain), opposite Butz’ polite, witty, earnest C. S. Lewis, the roughly 90-minute one-act moves briskly, and if it doesn’t excite, at least it doesn’t bore.

Barry Mulholland as Sigmund Freud. ©Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Barry Mulholland as Sigmund Freud. ©Photo by Eric Woolsey.

The script, however, never lives up to the promise of its plot, even as the Rep’s production exceeds it. Freud and Lewis have their arguments for and against the existence of God, but we’ve heard these same arguments before. The banter is clever and delivered with skill, but the lines sound like neat little verbal soundbites or passages from books, not real human dialogue. For this play to dig deeper, playwright St. Germain needs to cut these characters loose. Let them offend somebody.

Jim Butz as C.S. Lewis in STL Rep's “Freud's Last Session.” ©Photo by Eric Woolse

Jim Butz as C.S. Lewis in STL Rep’s “Freud’s Last Session.” ©Photo by Eric Woolsey

While the script seems to present both sides equally, it actually doesn’t. Freud is put at a disadvantage from the onset. Suffering from oral cancer that has eaten away his palate, he’s subject to debilitating fits of pain and near death, which, coincidentally, is when most religious conversions take place. We learn he wears a prosthetic palate that he only allows his daughter to remove. Later, after Lewis begins the visit on Freud’s couch (both literally and figuratively), their roles become reversed when Freud, in a convulsive fit of agony, collapses to his own couch while begging Lewis to remove the (sacred) palate, a ritual heretofore only performed by his daughter (goddess). The dying sinner desperately turns to religion—represented by Lewis—for salvation. Don’t they all? It seems a little sneaky and subliminal. Its a wonder St. Germain doesn’t call Freud by his real middle name: Schlomo.

Jim Butz and Barry Mulholland in STL Rep's “Freud's Last Session.” ©Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Jim Butz and Barry Mulholland in STL Rep’s “Freud’s Last Session.” ©Photo by Eric Woolsey.

There are also a few false equivalencies served up as viable arguments, such as Lewis lamenting that “religion takes into account science, but science fails to take into account religion.” Forgive the interjection but, “duh.” It’s not that the script is bad—it isn’t—but it does seem as though two towering intellectuals might have stronger arguments. We expect fireworks; we get sparklers.

Conversely, you couldn’t ask for two stronger performances than these by Mulholland and Butz, which take the production from “worth seeing” to “should see.” Director Michael Evan Haney deserves a good deal of that credit, and with James Sale’s competent lighting, Benjamin Marcum’s sound, Elizabeth Eisloeffel’s period costumes, and Peter and Margery Spack’s perfect realization of Freud’s study where the play takes place, makes for a very presentable evening of theater. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The real arguments about whether or not God is real will have to wait for the car ride home.

“Freud’s Last Session” continues at Repertory Theater of St. Louis through November 24. For tickets or information call (314) 968-4925, or visit the Rep’s website.

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