Most plays, of course, consist of dialogue—words spoken between characters, real or imagined. But a really good play is so much more than that: a captivating story, compelling characters, a conflict that drives the play and, if resolved, a strong and satisfying sense within the audience of having been moved or even changed. The truly great plays possess all, or at least a measure of all, these elements—or even embody a fierce antagonism toward them.
There are, of course, some pretty good plays that skimp on some of these elements and still manage to provide an evening of thoughtful entertainment. Mark St. Germain's Freud's Last Session, currently on stage at the Arizona Theatre Company, is one of these.
The play features a fictional meeting between Sigmund Freud (J. Michael Flynn) and C. S. Lewis (Benjamin Evett) on Sept. 3, 1939, as World War II is rattling Europe, England is being drawn into the war and Freud, 83, is sickened by oral cancer (in fact, he died 30 days later). Lewis had achieved fame as an elite Oxford intellect who, after a conversion—a "psychotic hallucination," in Freud's words—was now offering a rational context for Christian faith. Both intrigued and perplexed by Lewis' behavior, atheist Freud wants to engage Lewis in a discussion about God and his faith, while Lewis good-naturedly points out that Freud's desire to discuss God is an odd one if he doesn't exist.
Freud, of course, is the father of modern psychology. He was greatly influenced by Darwin and concluded that it was chiefly the sexual impulse of humans that was the driving force for development and survival. Hence, there was danger in attempting to look beyond the natural world, and especially dangerous were those institutions that professed a path to salvation by demeaning humanity's sexual nature.
Lewis was half Freud's age, a wounded veteran of World War I, and had renounced religion in his teenage years. He was a scholar, prolific writer (The Chronicles of Narnia, among others), and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, with whom he and other Oxford writers had discussions that rekindled Lewis' belief in God and his embrace of Christianity. His was an intelligent, reasoned response, and he was respected by folks like Freud, although they were skeptical and curious about his faith.
So there you have it: a perfect setup for intellectual sparring between these two figures whose ideas about human beings and life were so different, offering opportunities for discussions about sex, myth, history, families, romance, pain, illness, war, death and suicide. And in the play, these two tackle them all, which unfortunately means that they address them rather superficially.
The play was inspired by The Question of God, a book by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr. that compares and contrasts the thinking of Freud and Lewis. The idea of creating a play where these two smart and accomplished men meet and converse, parrying and thrusting with their very different ideas about the nature of life and faith and God is not a bad one, even if might appeal only on an intellectual level.
But ironically, the evening seems lightweight. There is some tension, but no real conflict. The two characters are interesting enough, and although there are small moments that reveal vulnerability and compassion, we really don't invest in them emotionally. And although St. Germain's dialogue is intriguing, his discussion of ideas is only mildly so. Overall, the theatrical effect is weak.
St. Germain understands the dramatic necessity of conflict and sympathetic characters, but sometimes his efforts to build these into the script seem forced rather than organic. He sets the piece in Freud's home in England, where he has had to flee from Austria, which is on the precipice of war. If ever there were a human event that challenges the very notion of God, war would certainly be a strong candidate. But the war provides a backdrop for the meeting; it is not a conflict rising from the meeting of the two.
St. Germain makes Freud and Lewis articulate and passionate. And to humanize these men of great minds, he emphasizes their wit, so there is plenty of humor to lubricate their lofty discussions.
There is an emotional center here, although it's a subtle one. It lies with Freud, a great, accomplished man dealing with pain and illness and clearly facing his death. He has had 33 operations on his jaw, and since so much of it has been removed, he wears an ill-fitting prosthesis that is painfully irritating. Throughout the play he makes phone calls to his doctor and daughter, pleading with them to come and help provide relief. While these calls seem devised to offer a growing sense of momentum, they actually impede it.
Flynn as Freud and Evett as Lewis offer skilled and credible characterizations, and it is their work that gives the play its appeal.
Director Stephen Wrentmore draws together as best he can the often sparse elements of drama St. Germain provides, as we peer into Freud's study. Kent Dorsey designed this impressively detailed and handsome set, although, quite frankly, it overwhelms the play itself.
This is a joint production of ATC and the San Jose Repertory Theatre. These two organizations have worked together before with great success, particularly with The Kite Runner several seasons ago.
Although ATC's production is a solid one, Freud's Last Session is not a great piece of theater, and it comes nowhere near offering convincing arguments from these two thinkers for or against the idea of a deity, which seems to be at the heart of St. Germain's purpose. In its goal of representing these two men and the products of their great intellects, it disappoints.