Freud’s Last Session

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

If conversation were kindling, this two-hander would combust. If argumentation were edible, this debate would be delectable. If a supersmart script played by two stellar actors were a spectator sport, this play would have a stadium cheering both sides at once. As an intense and absorbing experience in the theater, Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain, now on stage at Theater J, is quite simply extraordinary.

It’s also surprisingly funny. Who knew serious talk about God could be so goshdarn entertaining?

Playwright St. Germain has pitched together two intellectual-giant contestants—one an avowed atheist, Sigmund Freud (played here masterfully by Rick Foucheux), and the other a converted Christian, C. S. Lewis (the exceptionally gifted Todd Scofield). In real life their contrasting belief systems never actually talked back to each other, but in Freud’s Last Session they do, with a brainy brilliance so fun to follow that the play’s 80 minutes seem over too soon.

The imagined pretext for this idea fest is that Freud—near the end of his life and suffering horribly from incurable mouth cancer—has invited the chipper rising academic star Lewis for a visit in Freud’s London study (designed by Deb Booth so splendidly that Architecture Digest might want a look). The time is the eve of England’s entry into World War II, and Lewis arrives with a parcel that, as we learn later when an air raid siren sounds, contains a gas mask. Death and detonations loom as the two men debate the existence of God. They are well matched; the playwright has given each a fair share of witty riposts and wise rebuttals. The play does not favor one character over the other; for a while as I  listened raptly I found myself mentally ticking off points scored by each. In the end, though, it’s a draw. Yet the drama in their discourse is palpably personal and eerily epic.

The entire production is as sharp and on point. Director Serge Seiden has polished the two performances’  equipoise to a sheen, and paced the proceedings such that each line lands perfectly in one’s mind. Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis provides ominous BBC radio broadcasts and rumblings of war. Props Designer Deb Thomas has embellished the set with telling objets d’art, including a pantheon of divinity figurines that incongruously adorn Freud’s desk. Costume Designer Ivania Stack’s 1940s suits are appropriately bespoke.

The fact that Theater J has staged this particular work as the culmination of its season seems to me momentous in a way that surpasses the play itself. More than once during the show I found myself marveling: Here was I a lapsed Lutheran ex-seminarian hearing the character C. S. Lewis hold forth as a devout Christian and the character Sigmund Freud hold forth as a professed atheist in a theater whose stated mission is “to celebrate the distinctive urban voice and social vision that are part of the Jewish cultural legacy.”

It takes nerve in this town to hit a nerve the way Theater J does. Attend Freud’s Last Session and you’ll know what I mean.

Freud’s Last Session plays through June 29, 2014 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater- 1529 16th St NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.