Sunday, November 10, 2013

FREUD'S LAST SESSION • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Studio Theatre)

Mark St. Germain's 2009 play, inspired by Dr. Armand Nicholi Jr.'s book, The Question of Goddepicts a fictional meeting between Sigmund Freud, an atheist, and C. S. Lewis, a former atheist and now devout Christian.  As you can imagine, the play offers a good dose of intellectual banter along with a little humor, including conversations about the concept of God, myth, suffering, sadomasochism and music.  Among other things.

Freud (Barry Mulholland) has invited Lewis (Jim Butz) to his London home to meet him.  Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, is curious about how Lewis, a writer and scholar, could compromise his intellect by embracing Christianity.

Barry Mulholland (Sigmund Freud) and Jim Butz (C.S. Lewis).
©Photo by Eric Woolsey.
This core question unravels an examination of many topics during the course of their meeting, and though their beliefs are diametrically opposed, they manage to discover common ground and similarities in their formative years as the play unfolds.  It's 1939, and Freud periodically checks the radio as both men listen in to the latest news of the Nazi's invasion of Poland.  Their lively debate is broken up by the occasional air raid sirens that split the air and throw Lewis into a frenzy in search of a gas mask.  The play is also set about three weeks before Freud's death, and though he remains staunch in his arguments, he becomes pitifully debilitated by the increasing pain caused by his oral cancer and the false palate he's forced to wear.

Barry Mulholland (Sigmund Freud).
©Photo by Eric Woolsey.
While the dialogue is intriguing, the nature of the play's back-and-forth renders it a low-stakes game with little tension or conflict.  Arguments like this always seem to end at an impasse.  Still, this flaw is overcome by the play's relatively short duration of around 80 minutes, Michael Evan Haney's insightful direction, and the strong performances of Mulholland and Butz, who both wear their characters as comfortably as a tweed blazer.  Freud was pretty obstinate where his opinions were concerned, but Mulholland reveals a fragility in him with not only his failing health, but also when discussing the loss of his family members with brief flares of lightly veiled anger.  Butz gives Lewis an amiable quality, yet still passionately defensive of his beliefs.  While both men hold true to their ideas, they enjoy the verbal sparring, and clearly convey the admiration and respect they have for each other.

Jim Butz (C.S. Lewis)
and Barry Mulholland (Sigmund Freud).
©Photo by Eric Woolsey.
Scenic designers Peter and Margery Spack are responsible for the well appointed study of Freud's, adorned with statuettes, masks, and books against dark wood, along with details that hint at the escalating war.  Elizabeth Eisloeffel's costume design gives Lewis a pop of color while keeping Freud more traditional, and James Sale evenly lights the set, inside and out beyond the walls of Freud's study.  Benjamin Marcum's sound design adds nice touches along the way, with the sound of the sirens and the voices on the radio.

This battle of intellectual heavy hitters may not yield a clear "winner", but being able to be a fly on the wall and listen to the contest is a treat.  It's playing at the Rep's Studio Theatre until the 24th.


Written by Mark St. Germain
suggested by The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.
Directed by Michael Evan Haney
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through November 24 | tickets: $49 - $63
Performances Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm, selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm

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

Scenic design by Peter and Margery Spack; costume design by Elizabeth Eisloeffel; lighting design by James Sale; sound design by Benjamin Marcum; stage manager, Champe Leary.

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