There is a particular flavor of historical fiction that asks â€˜What ifâ€¦’ and shows events from a perspective of real persons, an account not known to history. These narratives can give us new insight into the period it presents, with a speculative twist that provides an immediate, provocative hook. In Freud’s Last Session, now playing at The Arden, we get to see a hypothetical meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis â€“ the former at the end of his life, the latter at the cusp of literary fame. Two of the great apologists in the arena of theology come together, both well-known for their ardent advocacy on either side of the question of the divine despite it being secondary to their actual professions.
David Howey as Freud hosts Todd Scofield as Lewis with a wonderful casual, dismissive arrogance that comes from Freud’s status as the elder statesman of rational analysis. Indeed, Freud invites Lewis for a chat with an almost clinical interest in his views, since Lewis was a former skeptic who converted to Christianity later in life. Freud sees a true talent for analysis there, but is baffled by what might cause a man such as Lewis to recant and cast away reason for faith. Howey’s Freud cannot avoid instantly sorting any topic of conversation into a descriptive box, conforming to one psychoanalytic scheme or another. The Lewis character chuckles as he sees the verbal mousetrap he walks into early on in the encounter, noting that it was perhaps silly to think he could avoid The Couch.
Lewis, in contrast, is both apprehensive and eager to meet with someone whose intellect he likewise respects but vehemently disagrees with. The child-like deference Scofield communicates from this seasoned professor in the presence Freud the Titan is telegraphed clearly at the outset; he proves that respect does not equal submission, though, as he fires off earnest and polite but fiery salvos when challenged in his beliefs.
The conversation between the two always circles back to the question of God, but ricochets off of so many facets of timeless, everyday situations that you find yourself nodding along as each scholar makes his respective case. Lewis’ dialogue is marked by the same plain-spoken and accessible metaphors that mark one of his most famous works, Mere Christianity. Later published in one volume, the work collects a series of radio broadcasts Lewis delivered during the middle years of World War II that outline the case for morality, God, and Christianity. He plies the rough draft of this pitch on Freud in the play, while Freud swats back at each barrage with measured exasperation. The blind spots in each man’s arguing style are revealed as each knocks chinks into their opposite’s philosophical armor, but neither can seem to land the killing blow. It is a fascinating exchange that is sure to leave audiences with more questions than answers when they leave, but none will feel unsatisfied by the actors who breathe such life into two storied academics.
Also framing the dialogue is the subtle but powerful setting: Freud’s London study on the first day of World War II. The room is dressed with dozens of replicas of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman artifacts, culled from the collections of Arden supporters and the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Period radio snippets punctuate the debate between Lewis and Freud, cataloguing Nazi forces rolling across Poland to the tune of Neville Chamberlain’s milquetoast protests. Set designer David Gordon and sound designer Jorge Cousineau deserve praise for freezing that location in space and time to give the actors a lush canvas to paint their debate across.
Freud’s Last Session is running now through December 23, 2012. Post-show discussions will be held following performances on November 8 at 8pm, November 14 and 21 at 6:30pm, and November 18 and 25 at 2pm. Single ticket prices are $36-$48, with discounts available for seniors, students, military, and educators. Groups of 15+ enjoy significant discounts. Call the Arden Box office at 215.922.1122, order online at www.ardentheatre.org, or visit the box office at 40 N. 2nd Street in Old City, Philadelphia.