HARTFORD — Last year Hartford’s TheaterWorks mounted a delightful production of Mark St Germain’s Becoming Dr Ruth, a one-woman dramatic monologue about how an orphaned Holocaust survivor became America’s most popular sex therapist.
St Germain’s grasp of human character and his ability to write crisp, incisive speech, which made that play so absorbing and entertaining, are once again on display in his two character prize winning work, Freud’s Last Session. TheaterWorks is presenting what it calls “the profound and deeply touching play (laced with humor and insight) about two men who boldly addressed the greatest questions of all time” until February 23.
Once again St Germain uses real people for his subjects. In this case it is an incongruous (and totally imaginary) meeting between two drastically different personalities: the 83-year old psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and the 41-year old poet, essayist, lay theologian and Oxford don C.S. Lewis, taking place in Freud’s London study in September 1939, on the day that England declared war on Germany.
Freud was an outspoken atheist, who in his writings explained religion as a form of neurosis, with God the expression of a desire for a father figure. Lewis, a former atheist, was converted into a believer by an intense religious experience.
Having read most of Freud’s works, Lewis satirized him in several of his essays. Now he arrives on stage because Freud has invited him up to London, ostensibly to debate the issue of whether or not God exists.
The two men do discuss this question fairly extensively. It is a genuinely intellectual play about real intellectuals of enormous stature. It is also much more than that. Their wide ranging conversation about God, love, sex and the meaning of life is set against two inexorable realities, which St. Germain uses to great dramatic effect.
One is the onset of a terrible war, which the audience is continually reminded of through periodic radio bulletins (including George VI’s speech from the Oscar winning The King’s Speech), the sound of sirens and planes overhead, as well as the fact that the cardboard box Lewis has brought with him — which I thought might be a gift of donuts — turns out to hold the gas mask that everyone in England was ordered to carry.
Obliquely this gives rise to the question, how is it possible to believe in a God who allows such things to happen? This is especially true in that Lewis, a veteran of the Somme, fought and was wounded, and watched his friends die, in the First World War.
The second factor is that Freud is dying, from an agonizing form of cancer that keeps him in constant pain, and makes it difficult to speak. This is portrayed with wrenching verisimilitude, choking, stumbling, some blood, and the need for the fiercely independent psychoanalyst to accept assistance from the fastidious scholar. With death approaching, wouldn’t he be tempted by the solace of a belief that life doesn’t just end, like a light going out, but that the soul is somehow immortal, and that God will provide some sort of ultimate meaning?
Above all, as the two men spar verbally, it is the bravura performances — Kenneth Tigar as Freud, and Jonathan Crombie as Lewis — that brings these two figures to dazzling life. With marvelous facial expressions and body language, they make us feel that we are in the presence of two powerful minds, each using his own unique personal weaponry.
While the stooped, heavily accented Freud probes mercilessly at the other man’s defenses, as if he were a psychoanalytic patient, whose religious arguments can be explained away as the results of a rigid childhood upbringing and repressed sexual instincts, the smiling, diffident Englishman uses wit and apparently friendly interest, to strike back. Lewis in turn probes the doctor’s own relationships, his inability to appreciate music, and his persistence in smoking cigars, even though they were probably responsible for the cancer that is tormenting him.
In the end, this 90-minute one act show was a brilliant tour de force of both intellectual rigor and dramatic revelation that was at once as serious and as entertaining a work as you can hope to see anywhere.
Performances continue until February 23, Tuesday through Saturday evenings and weekend afternoons. This show is recommended for ages 16 and up.
Tickets are $50 general admission, $65 center reserved, $35 for senior Saturday matinees, and $15 student rush. Group rates are available
Call 860-527-7838, weekdays between 10 am and 5 pm, to reserve seats; there are no tickets are TheaterWorks, just reservations, which are be held until curtain. There is no late seating for TheaterWorks productions. The theater is at 233 Pearl Street in Hartford. For additional information visit TheatreWorksHartford.org.