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‘Freud’s Last Session’ Takes on Big Questions

It has been hard to so much as glance at the Internet this week without running into news of a debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, a scientist supporting evolution and an ardent creationist, respectively.

Most people seem to feel that Ham, who interprets the book of Genesis’ tale of God creating the universe as a literal account, had his head handed to him. I haven’t watched the debate, mainly because it is, or ought to be a settled question at this point.

There’s a rather more elegant debate, a fictional one, taking place in theaters across the country in the form of Freud’s Last Session. Mark St. Germain’s 2009 play envisions a meeting between Sigmund Freud, the eminent father of psychoanalysis, and C.S. Lewis, then a young and little known professor, in Freud’s London office. The date is Sept. 3, 1939, the day Great Britain entered World War II and a few weeks before Freud’s death.

A solid, competent production that just opened at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield is the wheat to the chaff of the Nye-Ham debate, in that what Freud and Lewis turn over for around 75 minutes of spirited conversation is not the nuts and bolts of how the world was made, but the never-ending question: Why am I here and what is my purpose?

Lewis arrives, having been summoned by Freud from Oxford, while Freud’s wife and housekeeper are out scouring shops for canned goods. “We must be prepared for the worst,” Freud says. He had already been accosted by the Gestapo in Austria, and had fled with his family to London. Lewis had seen the horrors of World War I, and the prospect of another war stirs up his memories. There’s no evidence that the two men met at the dawn of the war, but the setting produces two characters primed to examine life, death, suffering, God and the mind and soul of man.

In St. Germain’s telling, which has had a long run Off-Broadway and become one of the country’s most produced plays, Freud sends for Lewis after the younger man had written a thinly veiled caricature of the aging master in his novel The Pilgrim’s Regress. Lewis expects a scolding.

Instead, the two men circle one another. Freud, played by Kevin Gilmartin, questions Lewis’ fantasies” about God, good and evil. Lewis, played by Jeffries Thais, probes Freud’s strict governance of his emotional life.

In a preview performance in Enfield’s Whitney Hall on Thursday evening, Gilmartin and Thais brought their characters to life with clarity and energy. Gilmartin connects with Freud’s intellectual confidence and vanity. Thais presents Lewis’ certainties and frailties with grace and wit. What’s more, the play is funny, because the mind can’t hold onto horror, Freud notes, and humor is the best tool for dislodging it.

Freud finds Lewis’ faith simplistic. He wants Lewis to acknowledge why he began to believe in God and take part in the Anglican church after years of atheism.

“Things are simple only when we choose not to examine them,” Freud says. What, he wants to know, is Lewis hiding behind his belief in God and Christ?

For his part, Lewis presses Freud to acknowledge that there is much that the mind cannot explain. For example, moral systems have existed for centuries, he notes. “A man can’t call a line crooked until he knows what a straight line is,” Lewis says.

It’s an idea Freud can’t accept. “What you call conscience are behaviors,” taught by parents, Freud says.

With the war looming, a question does too: If there is a God, how can he permit such appalling evil to afflict his creation? Lewis has no definitive answer, but Freud does.

“Man has never matured enough to face that he is alone in the universe,” Freud shouts at Lewis, telling him to “grow up” before falling into a fit of coughing. Stooped and shuffling, Freud was suffering from oral cancer that caused excruciating pain.

The play, which was inspired by The Question of God, a book by Armand M. Nicholi Jr. that places Freud’s and Lewis’ separate arguments about God side by side, is a static piece of work. Phone calls and radio announcements, air-raid sirens and Freud’s coughing fits are the only breaks in the conversation. The intellectual engagement between the two characters takes place against a backdrop so immense that it can’t fail to engage our emotions and moral sensibilities, albeit in a familiar way.

“It was madness thinking we could solve the world’s greatest mystery in one morning,” Lewis says.

“The only greater madness,” Freud replies, “is not to think of it at all.”

And that, of course, is the solution: To keep talking and acknowledging that there isn’t one.

Performances of “Freud’s Last Session” are scheduled for Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 through Feb. 23. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for students with ID, and can be reserved by calling 603-448-3750 or emailing reservations@shakerbridgetheatre.org.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.