Sunday, December 2, 2012

Freud’s Last Session

I rarely write about plays because I find many just instant gratification and lacking substance or in desperate need of an editor.  At the Lensic theater in Santa Fe, however, we saw a play that for me was just the opposite.

“Freud’s Last Session” recently came off a two year run Off Broadway in New York where they needed to move to a larger theater mid-run.  It was written by Mark St. Germain and presented by the Fusion Theater Company from Albuquerque (60 miles from Santa Fe).  The Fusion has been extremely professional in their productions and they have gained the privilege of often getting the rights to do new plays first in regional theater.  They then take the shows on the road to several venues in New Mexico.

Scott Harrison (CS Lewis) & Gregory Wagrowski (Sigmund Freud )

Obviously, they must travel with their sets and much of their technical equipment which is supplemented by the local theater that they are playing in.  The Lensic, an old movie house, was totally converted to a stage and film theater with the support of William and Nancy Zeckendorf.  It is today state of the art and further improvements to keep the theater technically up to date are continuously being planned.

Maybe, I have a particular interest in Freud because my grandfather was a psychiatrist in Frankfurt, Germany and shot by one of his patients when my mother was a child.  So I never knew him but my mother said that he was a pupil of Freud’s.  In college I took courses in psychology and philosophy so “Freud’s Last Session” was of particular interest to me.

We all know who Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was, the father of psychiatry, but C.S. Lewis  (1898-1963) is less known in the United States.  Lewis is probably most recognized on this side of the pond for his novel, “The Chronicles of Narnia”, but he was also a medievalist, poet, lay theologian among other talents.  In this play he is the protagonist, trying to give a logical basis for the Christian faith and this is the crux of the play because Freud is well known as an atheist.  Though these men were contemporaries this meeting is totally hypothetical.

 It all takes place in Freud’s study in Hampstead, London in September of 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II.  It has a chair, a couch, a desk and extensive library.  The books looked very real and we do not know if they were but I had this vision of re-shelving all those books for a two-night stand.  Under the direction of the Fusion’s resident director Jacqueline Reid, a founding member of the Fusion theater, the two actors in this production, Gregory Wagrowski as Sigmund Freud and Scott Harrison as C.S. Lewis keep the play moving with psychological tension.

The play is set three months before Freud’s death and he appears seriously ill, having coughing seizures, yet his mind is still sharp and he is still perfectly capable of expressing himself forcefully.  During their encounter Freud tunes into the BBC from time to time listening to Churchill warning of the coming war.  At one point there is an air raid siren heard throughout the area.  It is only a rehearsal but it presages the terrible blitz that will soon come to England.  (I remember my aunt, who lived not that far from Freud, speaking of the air raid drills and then the actual air raids and the nights spent in bomb shelters with hundreds of others.)  Lewis panics, Freud is quite cool about the whole thing.  Did Lewis’ faith let him down? Did Freud feel he had nothing to fear since he was going to die soon anyway?  These are the kinds of questions that come up in the course of the play, often very directly and sometimes more subtly.

Martin Rayner & Mark H. Dold from the original New York cast

Freud too knows fear, however, and this is evidenced when his doctor calls to say he cannot come to alleviate some of Freud’s pain and Freud is not able to get his daughter on the phone so that she can come home to remove the ill-fitting prosthetic he had to wear after the removal of his upper jaw and palate.  Both Freud and Lewis are vulnerable but each clings fervently to his beliefs.

I have read reviews from the New York, San Francisco and  the Chicago productions and not everyone loved it  but it is clear to me that when you have a well written play what is left is up to the director and the actors.  I think both were in top form for the performance that we saw.  After that, what more can you ask from a play than a discussion of universal ideas by 2 intellectual giants using logic and incisive wit?  As my son said, it gets your mind whirring!

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