Freud’s Last Session is well performed but “only scratches the surface” on stage in Toronto
Freud’s Last Session, currently being performed by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, is an evening of intellectual discussion. The play imagines a meeting between Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and C.S. Lewis, author and Christian apologist. It touches on important questions of joy, suffering, death, and the existence of God. But to my mind, it remains fairly superficial.
Freud’s Last Session, written by Mark St. Germain, takes place on September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Nazi Germany following the invasion of Poland. Freud is living in exile in London, having fled Vienna after the Anschluss in 1938. He summons Lewis, who is a professor at Oxford, because he wants to discuss Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. Freud is dying from oral cancer and is in debilitating pain. Lewis is young and energetic, full of confidence in his ideas yet haunted by the memory of his days fighting in World War I.
The two great thinkers talk and discuss. Freud asks how there can be a loving God when innocent children are allowed to die and Hitler exists. Lewis challenges Freud’s plan to take his own life when the suffering of his illness gets to be too much. The discussion is fast-paced, civil, and relatively light-hearted given the seriousness of the subject matter.
And I felt that the play was a little too light. As my companion said, “It did a great job of scratching the surface.” It seemed like the writer had a list of themes and issues he wanted to make sure to cover. They are all in there, but none of them are discussed very deeply. The dialogue sails along and doesn’t really get caught up in the truly knotty and difficult questions.
I felt there was no real drama or narrative arc. The talking is interrupted periodically by radio broadcasts of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and King George VI announcing the declaration of war. An air-raid siren sounds, sending both characters into a panic as they struggle to put on their gas masks. Freud makes periodic phone calls to his daughter Anna as his pain worsens. But it doesn’t build to anything. There is a final scene that I think was supposed to provide some sort of resolution or exclamation point, but its meaning was lost on me.
Despite my difficulties with the script, I thought the production was quite well done and well-acted. Layne Coleman played Freud as crotchety but somewhat bemused by his young counterpart. He’s clearly in great pain, but full of intellectual vigour. Brendan Murray’s C.S. Lewis is dashing and not afraid to challenge Freud. Their interaction seemed genuine, a realistic portrayal of what could have been. Everything takes place in Freud’s study, which looked just like I would have imagined. There are rich brocade curtains on the walls, carved dark wood furniture, dozens of classical and African sculptures covering the desks and shelves. And, of course, a couch, which both Freud and Lewis stretch out on at different times.
All in all, it was enjoyable evening, but it left me wanting more. Freud’s Last Session made me want to find my old notes from university and revisit the ideas and questions posed by two great minds of the 20th Century.
- Freud’s Last Session is playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge Street) until May 14, 2017.
- Shows run Tuesday – Thursday and Saturday at 8pm, May 7 at 7pm, with matinees Wednesdays at 1pm, Sundays at 2pm.
- The show is 85 minutes with no intermission.
- Tickets are $15-$72.50 and are available online or by calling 1-855-985-2787.
Photo of Layne Coleman and Brendan Murray by Joanna Akyol.