Freud’s Last Session
The extension of the run of the Barrington Stage Production of "Freud’s Last Session" at the Mercury Theater comes as a surprise to exactly no one, given the play’s critical and commercial success. In this leg, Tyler Marchant directs a new cast, featuring local fixtures Mike Nussbaum and Coburn Goss.
Lewis is eight years into his re-conversion to Christianity and on the verge of his rise to prominence as a writer and theologian; Freud is two weeks from his death by assisted suicide in the wake of oral cancer.
C. S. Lewis fights the tide of evacuation to answer a summons from Freud to London. The date is September 3, 1939, the day Britain enters World War II, and the stage is set: It’s the ultimate foxhole for a conversation between (arguably) the most famous Christian and most famous atheist of the 20th century.
The key to much of the play’s critical acclaim has been its balance: Freud has the home-field advantage, Lewis boasts youth, health, and the keen edge of conviction. The text moves between banter and impassioned monologue fairly seamlessly, and in this production, Nussbaum and Goss are certainly well and evenly matched.
For a play pondering such a timeless question, though, it’s oddly anchored in its historical moment (both the literal date and the broader environment of scholarship), which has a tendency to upset the level playing field. Lewis’ scholarly rumination on his own conversion story, for example, prominently features (and hinges on) conversations with T. D. Weldon regarding the apparent historicity of the gospels.
This frames Lewis’ position very much as a time- and culture- bound argument, particularly against the backdrop of Freud’s study (beautifully rendered in Brian Prather’s set design), which contains a riot of objects from cultures around the globe and throughout time.
The draw of the date is obvious, particularly given the tantalizing historical fact of the visit of an unknown Oxford scholar to Freud around this time, but the play’s fidelity to that literal moment also truncates Lewis’ views and artificially tips the scales in favor of Freud’s complete body of work.
On the other side of the equation, Freud’s cancer looms large in the play. The conversation’s "acts" (the play is performed without an intermission and runs just shy of 90 minutes) are most frequently broken by escalating struggles with Freud’s "monster" -- a painful dental prosthesis necessitated by a botched surgery. The "plot" device is undoubtedly realistic, so much so that Freud’s eloquence and lucidity increasingly strain credulity.
Nussbaum and Goss more than compensate for any bumps in the road, though. Nussbaum’s keen, wry intelligence meets Goss’ passion beautifully. The two meet each other quip for quip and moment for moment.
Their timing is impeccable and well supported by impressive lighting (Clifton Taylor) and sound design (Beth Lake), both of which keep the audience mindful of war crowding in on this intimate conversation.
"Freud’s Last Session " has been extended through September 2 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, Chicago. For info or tickets call 773-325-1700 or visit www.mercurytheaterchicago.com