In one corner of the ring, heavyweight atheist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. In the other, professor, author, and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. These two heavy hitters of 20th century thought go toe-to-toe in a fictionalized debate in Freud’s Last Session at Lamb’s Players.
As it turns out, the debate is a lot like the ones you’ve already heard and maybe participated in — perhaps as a restless undergrad or willing participant at the “Ask the Atheist” booth — but with better diction.
Which means you know neither Freud nor Lewis wins. This a battle that always ends in stalemate.
Still, the intellectual fracas at the center of Mark St. Germain’s play does prove entertaining, lively, and often funny under Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s steady direction. The two-hander features the talents of Lamb’s producing artistic director Robert Smyth as Freud, and Francis Gercke as Lewis.
It’s September 3, 1939, the day Britain declares war in Germany following Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Death stalks the 83-year-old Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who suffers from cancer of the mouth. Talking puts him in excruciating pain. This doesn’t stop him from inviting Lewis, who has converted from long-standing atheism to Christianity, to his London study to ask one question: How could his younger colleague “abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie?”
Let’s get ready to rumble!
The two tumble across topics of war, suffering, joy, family, free will, sexuality, and more. And both end up on the receiving end of psychoanalysis. “There’s no avoiding this, is there?” Lewis asks, referring to the proverbial couch (just one sumptuous piece in Brian Prather’s richly appointed set).
Gercke simmers with nervous energy as Lewis, delighted by his own wit and able to give as good as he gets, but also less self-assured than his counterpart.
Smyth, who bears a striking likeness to Freud, is curmudgeonly, rigid and arrogant, yet likeable. He strikes a fine balance between Freud’s physical weakness and his intimidating mental acuity.
Throughout the 90-minute play, radio reports and air raid sirens punctuate the dialogue. There’s a sense of urgency underpinning the conversation, as if in facing death Freud might be searching for something to change his mind. The play’s closing moments hint at the possibility that Lewis has made an impression.
Though the verbal sparring gets intense at times, it’s clear that the two men come from a place of mutual admiration. Theirs is a wrangling of ideas rather than a grudge match, so the tension never runs too high.
Though St. Germain’s script can feel heavy-handed at times, and the subject matter a bit worn, Gercke and Smyth provide glimmers of doubt and fear that elevate the play beyond mere lecture (inspiration for the play came from a Harvard professor’s seminar on Freud and Lewis). Its vigorous debate may spark self-examination and other thoughtful disagreements.