Freudís Last Session by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Tyler Marchant.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"What people say is less important than what they cannot."
Martin Rayner and Mark H. Dold; photo: Kevin Sprague
If playwright Mark St. Germainís play is on target; if C.S. Lewis did spend an hour with Sigmund Freud and they did clash over basic ideologies; if one fine mind met another fine mind in the days when a new world war was disrupting everything for everyone in Europe, then it is probable that the play "Freudís Last Session,"now on stage at Barrington Stage Companyís second space, is an accurate realization of the outcome of that meeting. I, for one, believe it highly possible. The concept of such a meeting comes from a scholarly tome by Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr., entitled "The Question of God." Surely no two men in the mid-twentieth century had more specific and sane concepts of the existence of God.
The play, set in Freudís study in his home in London, deals with the worldís first great psychoanalyst at a time when suicide was becoming an ideal solution to his own physical and emotional problems. Living with his wife Martha and his youngest daughter Anna - the model for many of Freudís dream analysis notations - Freud is suffering from the final stages of mouth cancer. He is in a dark humor, listening to the radio reports of Hitlerís advancing armies and of Englandís entry into the fray. He has planned his suicide but has made room for a visit from an Oxford Don whose own writings have taken Freud and his theories over the coals of humor. This man is C.S. Lewis, the convert to Catholicism and the author of the Tales of Narnia.
The two men argue, confer, sympathize and commiserate over the course of an hour-long visit. There is an excitement in their dialogue, a trigger mechanism that is greater than the conflicts they argue. Each is determined to win an argument that cannot be won. The structure of belief is at the core of their chatter. Neither will be swayed and no one can emerge more right than the other. Frustration drives Freud into a frenzy and Lewis into a shell-like, self-sacrificing mechanism that is both protective and its opposite.
Ultimately, it is cancer that has the final say in this play. Freud will go forward with his desire to beat the disease by destroying himself before the cancer can do it. In fact, two weeks after the date of this play, Freud, assisted by his doctor who gave him three courses of heavy morphine, did end his own life. In the play he tells Lewis that if Lewis is right he can tell Freud about it in heaven, but if Freud is right, then neither of them will ever know the truth. If the play has a weak point to make, that is it. Ideology is its own religion and its celebrants can only find satisfaction in it to the extent to which their personal beliefs are borne out.
Barrington Stage has a marvelous world premiere production in their hands. On a very realistic set designed by Brian Prather, two actors play out this struggle in perfect costumes by Mark Mariana. Beth Lake, sound designer, brings the early stages of World War II to life in the outside world and in the room itself with a radio. Clifton Taylor uses light sparingly to give the play the reality it deserves.
C.S. Lewis is played by Mark H. Dold. Dold has proven before that British accents are not his thing, so he wisely does not attempt one here. He plays the youth of Lewis perfectly and his line readings are square on and quite sincere. There is an earnestness to his line readings that makes them honest and truthful, and yet there is something not quite right in his Lewis. There is certainty but no conviction. There is humanness, but not much humanity. When he goes to assist an ailing Freud it feels honest and right, but when he taunts Freud with the Doctorís own techniques it feels false somehow. It is conceivable that Dold is just playing the forty-one year old author, teacher and convert in the best way he knows how and that this actorís concept of the man is not yet complete. His arguments, in St. Germainís script, are valid and strong and he states the points well. It is hard to buy his convictions, however, as anything other than line readings.
On the far side of the coin is the Freud created by Martin Rayner. This actor, a new face at Barrington Stage, is seemingly born to play Freud. Not one false note ever creeps into his voice, face, manner, bearing, his convictions or his intense interest in the goings on in the world around him. It is as though Freud is actually on the stage. His vocal Freud is convincing and his physically wrecked old man is just the other side of perfection. Everything he does or says is sound and right and unbearably transformed. "There is no moral law," he says, "only our feeble attempts to control chaos." As Rayner says those words in Freudís voice, our minds tell us that we are seeing the Viennese head doctor himself.
Rayner, Marchant and Dold make a curious trio. If Dold made me believe in his Lewisís God (rather than in his ability to act) to the extent that Rayner made me believe in his lack of existence then this struggle between two great minds would have been everything that St. Germain intended. But as fine a director as Marchant is he is restricted in his influence by the capabilities of two unequal talents.
Freudís Last Session is a brilliant piece of writing brought to uneasy life in its world premiere performance. Itís a mind-bending play and in this production your mind will most probably be bent in only one direction which is not fair to the characters the playwright has presented. What is needed here is equality in strength and influence. What we have is not what this excellent play demands.
Martin Rayner as Sigmund Freud; photo: Kevin Sprague
Freudís Last Session plays at Barrington Stage Companyís second stage located at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA. Tickets range in price from $25 to $30. Performances continue, Tuesdays through Sundays until June 28. For schedules and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888.