WATERTOWN — What would have happened if father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis had met? There’s no evidence they ever did, but in Mark St. Germain’s drama “Freud’s Last Session,” Lewis visits Freud in his flat in the London suburb of Hampstead and they discuss religion, love, sex, suffering, fathers, and music. The play debuted in 2009, at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield. Now New Repertory Theatre has it up at the Arsenal Center for the Arts’ Charles Mosesian Theater, and though the production won’t settle any theological arguments, it’s a thoughtful entertainment.
“Freud’s Last Session” was “suggested” by “The Question of God,” a seminar that Harvard professor Armand Nicholi began teaching in 1967 in which Freud and Lewis are the proponents of, respectively, atheism and Christianity. The course eventually spawned a book and a four-hour PBS documentary.
St. Germain sets his play on the morning of Sept. 3, 1939. Later that day, Britain and France will declare war against Germany. Freud is 83, Lewis 40. Freud has been suffering from cancer of the palate for the past two decades; he is in great pain and will die later in the month, in an assisted suicide. Nevertheless, he invites Lewis, who’s at Oxford, to come see him. The trains are all leaving London, carrying children, patients, and prisoners to the countryside, so Lewis arrives late, apologizing profusely. Freud’s wry response? “If I wasn’t 83 I would say it doesn’t matter.”
Whereupon the conversation begins. Both men profess their admiration of “Paradise Lost,” Freud remarking that “Milton gives Satan the best poetry, don’t you think?” We learn what Freud went through in leaving Nazi Austria, and how Lewis, after serving in World War I as a teenager, converted to Christianity. An air-raid siren sends both men scrambling for their gas masks. In the end, they conclude they “were never going to solve the greatest mystery of all time in one morning.”
Indeed, at 75 minutes without intermission, “Freud’s Last Session” does not seriously propose to debate the existence of God. Freud, who has a low opinion of mankind in general, is no theologian; Lewis represents one religion only. What St. Germain gives us instead is a warm, witty play in which Freud has most of the good lines.
Cristina Todesco’s re-creation of Freud’s study includes a period telephone and radio along with a desk, some armchairs, and, of course, a couch. Freud’s collection of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts clutters the desk; pages taken from books litter the stage on both sides. It’s all framed by a giant spiral of what look like steps leading into the unknown — or toward, at the back, black-and-white video of soldiers going off to war.
Joel Colodner has the easier of the two parts; his Freud, comfortable in both vocal delivery and body language till pain gets the better of him, is courteous and self-assured, almost a fatherly figure. Shelley Bolman’s Lewis, in an oddly oversize suit coat, is altogether stiffer and more callow, but perhaps that was director Jim Petosa’s intention. Eventually, Lewis’s donnish self-consciousness eases into compassion, and the two men warm to each other. It’s their bonding, not their principles, that “Freud’s Last Session” is all about.
Freud’s Last Session
Play by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Jim Petosa. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through May 22. Tickets: $45-$65. 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.