Religion Battles Science at Freud's Last Session

The set-up:
Book are everywhere. They pile around the desk, which is cluttered with statues of ancient gods and goddesses. They heap on the multiple shelves that ring the dark yet cozy room that's dominated by a large round window to our right. They spill onto the floor. Books, books everywhere. And then there's that couch. Covered in tapestry rugs, the divan welcomes. It says, Sit here, don't be afraid, tell me your secrets. Because of the play's title, we know who's couch that is and what it implies. It may be the most famous piece of furniture in the world. Rest assured, the couch will be used later in the play.

Atmospherically realized through Mark A. Lewis's crisp set design, we are in Sigmund Freud's study in Hampstead, England, outside of London. Freud had moved there after he and his family escaped Nazi Germany one year earlier in 1938. He had underestimated Hitler's evil and barely made it out before notorious Kristallnacht.

The execution:
Superstar father of psychoanalysis, an unrepentant atheist, has something on his mind and needs it resolved. He has invited brilliant young Oxford professor C.S. Lewis, an unrepentant Christian, for a chat. The reasons why are obliquely hinted at as the play progresses. Helping matters along dramatically, the day of their visit will turn out to be the day Germany invades Poland, starting WW II.

While Mark St. Germain's Freud's Last Session is more debate than play, you won't find a more enjoyable hothouse intellectual exercise. A.D. Players production is a well-mounted tennis match of the mind. Feisty, flinty Freud (James Belcher, in matchless control after all his years as veteran actor) versus upright, morally unshakable Lewis (Chip Simmons, equally exceptional, if younger veteran). They are each champions in their own division.

They serve and volley like pros. Dying from jaw cancer, Freud commands by his place in history, but Lewis, not yet universally beloved for his later Narnia series or his faith-filled radio broadcasts during the war, parries the old lion with unquenchable resolve.

Much is discussed and argued over: the historical Jesus, man's suffering, a bit of sex talk, and lots of daddy issues. The drama is neatly hyped up by the looming specter of war, and when an air raid siren shrieks, both men confront their mortality in more personal ways than either would like. The debates are smart, a little too neatly positioned so each of them gets a fair shot, but they lob and volley like smart-alecky Federers and Djokovics. They bat back and forth capital letter arguments on emotion vs. intellect, faith vs. science, fathers vs. sons. “An insidious lie,” is what Freud calls religion. “There is a God,” counters Lewis. Curmudgeon Freud usually gets the best lines, but Lewis parries with the finesse of youth and the implacable rightness in his Christian faith.

Both Lewis and Freud end up on the couch, but like all the scenes, just as the mutual therapy gets heated it's invariably cut short by phone calls from the outside world to remind old Sigmund to turn on the radio to hear the latest grim news, which sends the men into overtime and on to a new topic.

The specter of death is close indeed, adding a poignant, human touch to Freud's stony pronouncements and Lewis' prim priggishness. The pain and grisly details of his cancerous disease soften Freud, as do Lewis's still-fresh memories of the horrors of trench warfare during WW I. Trying to present both sides without judgment, St. Germain adds moments of levity during the dry debates about free will, moral conscience, and obsessional neuroses. Both men evoke their share of audience sympathy. And both make cogent points we agree with.

Although he appears as rumpled as his black suit, Belcher turns afflicted Freud into a still-smoldering volcano, bellowing smoke and fire when appropriate. The explosions sap him, each one leaves him more pained and therefore more resolute for his suicide to be. He's still a mighty carnivore and knows his place in history, but his body is broken, even if his ego is secure. The battle with Lewis has affected him, though. At the end, he succumbs to the music on the radio. For once he doesn't turn it off, but stands at the window, lighting up yet another of his beloved cigars, and truly listens for the first time, losing himself in the emotion of the moment.

As a young C.S. Lewis, in argyle sweater and tweed coat, Simmons is as clean and bright as Freud is sooty. Once a committed atheist with much in common with Freud, he's had his road-to-Damascus moment in a motorcycle sidecar, and his conversion makes him shine. He radiates goodness and morality in his beliefs, with a whiff of insufferable rightness. He has his demons, too, but fights them with unconquerable cheer. His jousts with Belcher sparkle.

Director Christy Watkins (2014 Houston Theater Award winner for Best Actress as Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker) knows her way around, over, and through any text. Freud is fluid, no one stays in one place very long, not even on that famous couch. Santry Rush's sound design – sirens, dogs, overhead planes, and the ubiquitous radio broadcasts – is masterful, as is Nikki M. Johnson's subtle lighting, which softly highlights our protagonists during their continual contest of wills.

The verdict:
Although Freud's Last Session resembles an earnest Trinity Broadcasting special (unlike one of Tom Stoppard's historical conundrums), St. Germain's game of advocates and adversaries is literate, witty, adult, and hinges on the mysteries of life. There's plenty to savor. For that, and A.D. Players' intelligent rendition, we're eternally grateful.

Freud's Last Session. Through November 8. 2710 W. Alabama. For information, call 713-526-2721 or visit $40.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover