Fort Worth — Unlikely meet-ups of legendary figures has become a little subgenre all its own. What if…the young Picasso and Einstein met one night at a Paris dive called the Lapin Agile? What if…Lincoln and Socrates crossed paths, courtesy of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Long-ago Tonight Show host Steve Allen got in on this game, too, with an Emmy-winning TV chat-show he called Meeting of the Minds. Among the more interesting pairs of “guests” Allen interviewed were Teddy Roosevelt and Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette and Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and poet Emily Dickinson.
An encounter between famously atheist psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and committed Christian philosopher Clive Staples Lewis (C.S. to his readers, but friends called him “Jack”) isn’t nearly that hard to imagine. Both lived in and about London at the same time in the late 1930s. In fact, professor Armand Nicholi—both in his book The Question of God and in his Harvard classes—speculates that the nameless Oxford don (professor) who visited Freud in the last weeks of his life might have been Lewis.
That “maybe” was enough to send playwright Mark St. Germain off to the races, and Freud’s Last Session is the fascinating result. It’s Amphibian Stage Productions’ fourth mainstage production of the 2015 season, and marks a happy return for director René Moreno, who does brilliant work with a wonderful cast of two—never losing his grip on the thread of deep emotion that runs all through this word-packed, philosophizing play. In just over an hour, Freud and Lewis (played by Michael Corolla and John-Michael Marrs, both making impressive first appearances with the ‘Phibs), chew over questions of love and war, sex and death. Why does God (if he exists) allow pain and suffering? Do humans have an inborn “moral code”—or are we just well-taught little animals? Is sex really the be-all and end-all of existence…or just one way of experiencing joy?
Their views couldn’t be more different. “I feel the world is crowded with God,” says the joyful convert Lewis. “One of us is a fool,” says Freud, who seems oddly, passionately angry that a man of intellect like Lewis would “abandon truth” to embrace the “insidious lies” of Christianity. Freud, dying of a terrible cancer, is in the last agonizing weeks of his life—and Lewis struggles to understand just why he’s been invited to come.
They meet on the desperate day in September 1939 when England went to war with Nazi Germany—both of them reliving the horrors of their experiences in the First World War (Lewis was badly wounded in combat), both dreading what’s to come. His cancer, Freud says paradoxically, is a blessing: he’ll die soon and leave this new war behind.
Even when the finer points of their intense back-and-forths leave us in the dust, we sense both men are honest truth-seekers. Why did you invite me, Lewis asks? The answer is in the dialogue. Freud needs this “last session” in some way, needs it therapeutically, perhaps, as a last-chance effort to work through some worrying issues with a man as intelligent as he is. Lewis won’t let him get away with a thing…and Freud gives as good as he gets.
Both actors do a remarkably believable job of inhabiting these characters, and it’s more than just Lewis’ well-cut tweeds or Freud’s much-worn dark suit (good costuming from designer Lalonnie Lehman). Their clash of accents—Lewis’s Oxfordian tones, Freud’s sibilant Viennese—is done to perfection. After a few lines, we forget to watch the magician’s hands; they are who they are.
Marrs gets Lewis entirely right, the knife-sharp scholarly mind wrapped inside a nice, home-for-tea English bloke. Lewis is painfully, comically grumbling about his conversion: he was a happy atheist, glad to be “left alone” in his thoughts, until the God of the Old and New Testaments—a “bullying busybody”—insisted he think again. Yet Lewis seems more than content with his choice to become a questioning Christian.
Corolla is equally terrific as Freud, the great advocate of psychic freedom who nevertheless wants to control every inch of his world—and the people who love him. With Lewis, we watch Freud fighting against agony, willing himself to keep thinking, wondering and talking about the great issues that have defined his life. At a moment when pain overwhelms him and Lewis bends down beside him, tender as a mother, these are two brilliant men brought back to one of the essentials of human life: when there is need, we care for one another.
He and Freud each take turns, almost by accident, on the great doctor’s couch (Sean Urbantke’s set, Freud’s study transplanted intact from Vienna to London—did we mention he was a control freak?—is chock-full of telling detail) but there’s no telling who’s analyzing who at a given moment. They compare notes about rotten fathers and oddball sex lives, and jab at one another for the things they can’t bring themselves to talk about. There is humor, bite, pain, and a sense of immediacy here; these aren’t just quotes spliced together to make a conversation.
And always, there’s the awareness of two trains coming at them—a global war and Freud’s imminent death—to keep tensions running high. David Lanza’s evocative soundscape—air-raid sirens, Freud’s frantically barking dog, radio broadcasting the words of Neville Chamberlain and King George VI—add to the feeling that these two have stepped out of their lives in the terribly real world…for one last, long, and very satisfying meeting of the minds.