by Warren Francke
I wasn’t keeping score on God vs. atheism when I attended Freud’s Last Session at the Omaha Community Playhouse, but arrived wondering how balanced or biased the playwright might be in dealing with the great questions of belief and unbelief.
If you’re tempted to keep score at the Howard Drew, the final tally will likely depend on your predispositions, which almost goes without saying. For starters, here’s how the writer, Mark St. Germain, and director Kevin Lawler present the protagonists:
Sigmund Freud, played by Bernie Clark, has been labeled the adamant atheist, and C.S. Lewis, played by Nick Zadina, the intellectual Christian. Playgoers probably bring certain Freudian baggage about sex and parents and associate Lewis with his Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters.
I arrive predisposed toward God, so all you adamant atheists can blame my bias, or you can credit me with a bit of detachment when I argue that Lewis as a character is treated with far more sympathy than Freud. Yes, Freud is near-death from painful oral cancer, so we can understand that he’s cranky, but through most of the 75-minute play he is far more likely to sneer at Lewis’ faith while the younger man is kinder and gentler with the aging psychoanalyst.
Oh, Lewis takes a few shots at Freud for selfishly considering suicide, but he doesn’t brush off Freud’s atheism as so many neuroses, as Sigmund does with believers. More often, Lewis teases mildly when Freud utters, “Thank God,” and then confesses it’s a hard habit to break.
If the playwright fails to settle the dispute during the dialogue, one might argue that he takes a stand with the final use of the radio. Throughout the evening spent in Freud’s study (decorated by daughter Anna in life, by Steve Wheeldon for the Playhouse), we’re reminded by radio newscasts that it’s 1939 and Hitler is invading Poland.
As Lewis leaves the study, Freud again listens to the radio and we hear that historic speech made by the king of England. It won an Oscar a few years ago for the actor who struggled with the speech, and it provides the play’s final word on where people turn when life puts them psychologically in a foxhole.
The encounter, rumored but not confirmed to have occurred, was purportedly inspired by Freud’s curiosity about how a cerebral giant like Lewis could be converted to Christianity. Reviewers have argued that the play doesn’t get much beneath the surface of the age-old questions, but it deserves credit for at least discussing them.
For example, Freud refers to religion’s “insidious lies,” though he seldom faces head-on the key tenets he finds false. He does emphasize a familiar complaint: that God lets bad things happen to good people. Rabbi Kushner’s famous treatment of that issue wasn’t available at the onset of World War II.
What this play most suggests is those frequent encounters in the mid-20th century between Christian clergy and Clarence Darrow. While I might wish better for the clergy, I suspect Darrow got the best of many of them.
But they didn’t have the advantage Lewis brings to the stage, namely, a mild and laidback manner in contrast to a cranky pain-ridden cancer victim given to abrasive attacks. Lewis is quite willing to hear a sharp question from Freud and say, “I don’t know.”
He makes a telling point (my bias again) when he argues that scientists complain when theologians don’t have all the answers, but theologians don’t criticize scientists when they can’t come up with all the answers.
So I’ll take a tip from Lewis and answer that original question about who wins the argument. I don’t know, but I’m inclined by my bias in favor of God to count the final words on the radio broadcast as conclusive.
Maybe the fullest measure of how compelling and entertaining one finds the content of the script is the fact that my review reached this point without applauding two terrific performances by Clark and Zadina and a deft directing job by Lawler.
Freud’s Last Session runs through Nov. 17 in the Howard Drew Theatre of the Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St., 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets are $35 adults, $21 students. Call 402.553.0800 or visit omahaplayhouse.org.