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‘Freud’s Last Session’ at Mercury Theater: A Talking Cure for Religious Incivility

By Lori Hile | Monday, April 2, 2012

(L to R) Martin Rayner stars as Sigmund Freud and Mark H. Dold as C.S. Lewis in the Midwest premiere of "Freud's Last Session" at the Mercury Theater. Credit: Carol Rosegg

Questions about religion–especially Christianity–have dominated the headlines in recent months. Entering into this discussion is the play Freud’s Last Session, which just opened at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.

Fresh from a two-year run in New York City–where it nabbed the 2011 Off Broadway Alliance Award for Best Play–the drama pits legendary psychoanalyst and avowed atheist Sigmund Freud against Christian convert and author C.S. Lewis. As directed by Tyler Marchant, the result is a witty and insightful 75-minute discourse on God, religion and, of course, sex.

We meet Freud (Martin Rayner), 83, in his book-filled London study, where he is homebound and suffering from the final stages of jaw cancer. The date is Sept. 3, 1939, and a radio on the old man’s window ledge beams in bad news from the BBC: The Nazis, whose occupation has already forced Freud, an ethnic Jew, to flee his native Austria, have now invaded Poland. Freud paces as he awaits an announcement from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who will declare war on Germany later that day.

But just as most residents are evacuating London for the countryside, fresh-faced Oxford don C.S. Lewis (Mark H. Dold) has braved his way into the city, at Freud’s invitation. Only 41, Lewis is still a rising academic star, yet to pen his most famous works, including The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity. Lewis assumes that he will be taken to task by Freud for parodying him in one of his books as an ignorant, arrogant, self-important old buffoon. But Freud merely wants to understand how a man as intelligent as Lewis could possibly hold a world view so diametrically opposed to his own. Or as Freud puts it to Lewis: “why a man of your intellect would suddenly abandon truth,” referring to Lewis’ radical abdication of atheism for Christianity at the age of 33.

If this were 2012, the ensuing dialogue would likely devolve into a personal shouting match. Or it wouldn’t take place at all, with scientists and religious scholars retreating to their respective academic corners. In reality, such a “session” between the two men probably never occurred. The meeting is a product of playwright Mark St. Germain’s imagination, sparked by his reading of The Question of God, Harvard psychology professor Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.’s bestselling book, which places arguments from the two thinkers side by side.

It’s an inspired pairing: two of the 20th Century’s most brilliant minds wrestling with life’s biggest questions from wholly opposed vantage points. What stands out most during the dialogue is that it is, in fact, a dialogue–not a series of rants or raves. The two men engage, rather than lecture, and an easy banter soon grows and flows between them.

This is due in no small part to the considerable talents of actors Mark H. Dodd and Martin Rayner, who originated their roles in the New York production. Not only do both actors radiate the intelligence and sophistication necessary to convincingly embody their characters, but they share a comfortable chemistry together.

Dodd’s Lewis is solicitous and humble but also stands toe-to-toe with Freud and displays, at moments, a quiet heroism. Rayner’s Freud is crustier (frankly, he doesn’t have time for niceties) and more cynical but equipped with a rigorous self-awareness and insatiable curiosity.

Both men readily employ humor, which lightens up the tenser exchanges and sometimes heavy subject matter (think: Hitler, Nazis, death). Yet as Freud himself points out, humor can also be used as a weapon–“a defense from the horror of examining life too fully”–and occasionally the levity seems to prevent a full flowering of the topics at hand, keeping passions artificially in check. But overall, this is a quibble–and things occasionally do become heated.

When Lewis uses a Bible passage to justify an argument, Freud quips, “Oh, the Bible. For a second, I thought you were thinking for yourself.” And after Freud expresses a disdain for music, Lewis accuses Freud of being afraid to feel. Their respective accusations reveal what each man holds most dear: for Freud it’s the “head,” or the ability to analyze; for Lewis, the “heart,” or the ability to be moved.

Happily both men are more than just metaphors or mouthpieces for the world views they so eloquently espouse. Each character is drawn with complex and contradictory backgrounds and beliefs, although Lewis’ are the bigger revelation. Lewis hated his father and rebelled against any type of authority, especially another “Father” figure, for years. Far from the familiar caricature of the preachy, intolerant Christian, Lewis finds “religious music” sappy, believes Christians give Christianity a bad name and that one should not judge religion by religious institutions.

While Freud’s observations often feel more grounded in reality, Lewis’ insights sometimes startle Freud (and the audience) with their clarity and force, as if he’s somehow managed to strip away all the noise surrounding Christianity and distill it to some shocking, nearly-forgotten essence.

In the end, there is no clear “winner” in this battle of wits, and some in the audience will see aspects of themselves in both men. As Lewis notes towards the end of the play, it is madness to think that two men could solve the greatest mysteries of all time in one morning. Neither can it be done in 75 minutes. But it’s enough time to provoke thought–and maybe even a little hope–that tolerance and civility can prevail, even as war and incivility rage outside.

Freud’s Last Session runs through June 3 at the Mercury Theater. For a glimpse behind the scenes and brief interviews with Rayner and Dodd, check out the new web series, After the Curtain.

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