In the congenial surroundings of Omaha Community Playhouse’s Howard Drew Theatre two capable local actors personify an encounter between Sigmund Freud and earnestly Christian, ex-atheist novelist C. S. Lewis (e.g. The Chronicles of Narnia). They materialize in Mark St. Germain’s play Freud’s Last Session which narrows in on debates about God and connected issues such as the meaning of life, love, sex, war and suffering.
This is called a play, of course. A play of minds would be a more precise definition, since it is actually a fictional dramatization of the essence of Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.’s book, The Question of God, juxtaposing writings by Freud and Lewis as if they were conversing.
The trenchant discussion comes full of intelligent, interesting thought-provocations, occasionally lightened by charming wit. But mostly the uninterrupted seventy-five minutes feel as not much more than a lively conversation with limited drama. True, both men disagree about some fundamental perspectives, but they stay civilized rather than antagonistic.
The script does not attempt to support or endorse one man’s thinking over the other’s on any disputed subject, no more, evidently, than does the book; it makes both men not only eloquently articulate but also human.
Irish-born Lewis visits the Austrian psychoanalyst Freud in his London home, invited there to have such a discussion. Meanwhile, the continent across the Channel has erupted with barbarity. Freud’s countryman Hitler has propelled the German army to savage other nations’ homelands and Britain has already geared up for incipient destruction. There is vital drama outside the walls framing this meeting but, in this performance, the impact feels minimal.
True, the men discuss the question of how God, if there is one, can allow such horror so soon after the War to End All Wars did not end all wars. But they ruminate on much more, going into and out of the subjects, more rambling than focused and at times, find a sort kinship about events in their earlier lives.
A second element in this encounter is Freud’s physical condition. He suffers from the effects of oral cancer the pain of which stays repetitively evident. His suffering doesn’t appear to have a direct bearing on what he thinks, but you could infer that it does, even if Lewis refrains from injecting that into their discourse.
Bernie Clark as Freud remained always convincing on opening night but I felt that he didn’t need to cough, wince and struggle so often. Nick Zadina, despite remaining believable, played Lewis as more measured and restrained than intrinsically vulnerable and he rarely got noticeably exercised in supporting his newly found strong faith. Together neither actor gave a deep or distinct sense of the personalities within the famed personas.
Director Kevin Lawler could have made more and better use of Steve Wheeldon’s superb set. Lawler too often has Freud and Lewis seated in unchanged places. Lawler never once had Lewis peer with curiosity at the magnificent library around him or look elsewhere with curiosity. Surely Lewis could and would have done so while talking. And you would think that Freud, stimulated by so much debate, would have been compelled to rise from behind his desk to pace or stride back and forth.
Information about Lawler’s background and experience, by the way, are absent from the program book, likewise that of writer St. Germain. It would be nice to see those in a publication with thirty-six pages of advertising. The Playhouse should be able to afford the print space, and to have the ink for the equivalent of nearly two other pages of empty whiteness.
By the way, speaking of Lewis, December 6 to 29, The Rose Theater here in Omaha offers a production of Narnia, a musical based on his The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with a book by Jules Tasca, music by Thomas Tierney and lyrics by Ted Drachman. I hope that Rose Theater audiences get information about those creators of the source of their production. http://www.rosetheater.org. The children and adults who attend should be reminded of the importance of writers.
Freud’s Last Session continues through November 17 at Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass Street, Omaha. 7:30 p.m. More info at www.omahaplayhouse.com 402.553.0800