Freud's Last Session

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday May 3, 2016

Shelley Bolman and Joel Colodner star in 'Freud's LAst Session,' continuing through May 22 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts
Shelley Bolman and Joel Colodner star in 'Freud's LAst Session,' continuing through May 22 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts  (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

On of the two characters in Mark St. Germain's play "Freud's Last Session" is, of course, Dr. Sigmund Freud (Joel Colander), father of psychoanalysis. The other is the writer C. S. Lewis (Shelley Bolman), once a devout atheist but now just as devoutly a believer in God and Christianity. (By "now" what's meant is the start of World War II, as England and Germany formally enter into armed conflict with one another.) Upon being introduced to the pair of players in this two hander, one instantly snaps to attention with anticipation. Who, exactly, is going to the subject of this session? Is it Lewis who's to be analyzed? Or will Lewis turn the tables and peer back at Freud? Or are there bigger fish to fry here: God, history, humanity?

Freud is a strict rationalist. He sees no need for God, and rejects the idea of a supreme being as ludicrous. To Freud, as he's depicted here, dispensing with the idea of God is simply a matter of Occam's Razor; it takes more logical convolution and self-contradictory argument to advocate for the existence of the Almighty than simply to accept that he isn't there and never was -- at least, not in the sense of the Biblical God.

But Lewis counters that God -- and Jesus, His earthy manifestation and the salvation of humankind -- is the necessity, not godless reason. His attempts at rational proof of this idea fall flat (Lewis name-checks Aquinas, though his line of reasoning more resembles the passionate, but intellectually suspect, arguments advance by St. Anselm in his "Proslogion"), but his passionate embrace of faith is striking, and fundamentally moving. Shelley Bolman brings the joy of belief to his depiction of Lewis -- a joy underscored by a thoughtful bent of mind, rather than rejection of thought or static incuriosity. He's a sympathetic believer, looking to share the relief and uplift of his conviction, rather than a strident, accusatory zealot looking to subjugate the rest of the world to his chosen system of belief.

Freud's hard-edged reasoning slices finer and deeper, and sometimes takes on the callous arrogance of the stereotypical faithless intellectual. But his own beliefs are integral to himself as a person; Freud is dying of oral cancer, and struggling with the constant pain of an ill-fitting dental prosthesis (the artifact of drastic surgical intervention), but he's not one to fall to his knees in a panic of sudden piety. Freud flatly dismisses Lewis' arguments, but even so he is charmed by Lewis' humor; when the moment comes that his agony is unbearable and he allows Lewis to help him in an intimate, even bloody, manner, it's clear that the two have forged a deep and human bond in spite (and perhaps because) of their theological differences. After all, they are both brilliant men of letters, and what acolyte of the mind doesn't cherish a good disagreement, something that at its finest is as intimate, and even as tender, as any moment of frictionless accord?

(Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

The characters' arguments don't raise any new or startling points. Thankfully, neither do they descend into an overly simplistic "Why do bad things happen to good people?" morass, though they do come close; after all, any fight over God's existence (the belief in which implies divine callousness if not downright malice in the face of the human condition) has to touch upon the issue. Moreover, it's a valid and venerable question, one that has haunted human meditations on divine beings since well before monotheism's rise; At least one pagan literary source imagined the the gods wantonly inflicted misery on human beings out of drunken cruelty.

St. Germain wants something more than the shallow sentiment that good "must" exist to vanquish evil, and that a life behind this one "must" await us, because anything else would be too terrible, and too unjust, to accept. Nature, alas, has its ideas on those points, and science -- which began as a branch of inquiry called "natural philosophy" -- has, as its ideal, the aim of truth over solace, and probing questions over reassuring answers.

From our point of view, of course, science has offered intriguing possibilities, but also dizzying complications and confirmed observations that defy everyday experience. In some ways, the world made more human sense when we thought it was plain to see that the sun orbited the Earth, and not the other way around; nowadays we chase after particles of matter and flecks of energy so minute as to baffle and confound any human sense of scale, and we look for the hows (if not so much the whys) of existence in their company. But what burning question does the discovery of the Higgs boson answer for the layperson? If we glance skyward on a clear night and feel a tug, a resonance, or a poignant longing, what equation can possible encapsulate the sensation? If faith fails our closest inquisitions, science neglects our sharpest hungers. It may well be the case that we require both, and yet we are always setting the two at odds, which probably says more about human beings than it does either rationality or faith.

At its heart, the play is about just such insoluble questions, refusing to let either side off the hook. St. Germain has written words for his characters that chart a course through some complicated dialectical terrain, but it's the way he's set the exchange against the dawning horrors of the second world war that inspires the play and elevates it. The same conversation two people might engage in over a lazy glass of sherry takes on far more significance when it's punctuated by air raids sirens and a scramble for gas masks.

At the same time -- this election cycle being what it is, attended by even more apocalyptic hysteria than the one in 2012 -- the inclusion of the play in the current season speaks to more than the theme of "Identity" that the New Repertory Theatre has pondered of late. Boil down the sensibilities behind the rhetoric and replace fractious verbal and physical shoving matches with urbane and witty repartee, and this imaginary conversation set eight decades in the past turns out to be another version of today's screaming matches.

(Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

If the script elevates the cultural debate around these issues, the production's designers elevate the experience and director Jim Petosa keeps everything on a keel so even that the play's equal parts of comedy and drama remain in sync and strike a balance. Molly Trainer's costumes are period-perfect and almost wink at you in how well they fit the characters -- or not; Lewis's brown suit is a little loose, fitting his sunny disposition and tendency toward elegant rhetoric rather than terse and rigorous parsing. Freud's slightly more formal attire speaks to his strict habits of mind, habits that assure his outlook maintains clarity and precision; his clothing also lends him a sort of inbuilt authority befitting his role as therapist. As he stands silently, sipping tea and listening to Lewis fall over himself in an attempt to justify some harsh critiques he's made of Freud, he seems every bit the psychiatrist -- but also more than a little bit the brilliant and cold sort who doesn't mind letting his quarry fashion their own rhetorical trap.

Scott Pinkney handles the lighting design and David Remedies the sound design. The former modulates the piece's shifting moods -- tension, humor, concern, terror, levity -- in an unbroken, shapely manner, while the latter punctuates the proceedings, sometimes to jolting effect (and just when we need it).

Cristina Todesco's set is striking from the word go (and when have her sets been anything less than sublime)? The space is flanked by dozens of open books and pages ripped from books, the strewn reminder of how knowledge -- no matter how copious -- can lack wisdom and remain pinned to the ground while passion and vision soar overhead. (That said, you can't build anything concrete in mid-air: Book learning, so scorned in some circles, is the root of everything that civilization takes for granted, from law to medicine to roadways.) The set recedes toward a circular screen in the back, with a tunnel effect that's overtly Freudian in its visual implications; but look closer, and you see that the "tunnel" is actually a spiral, and a Lewis quote included in the program gives you the bit of context you need to understand the motif.

The screen serves both as a place to project old war footage (an illustration to radio reports Freud anxiously listens to) and an entrance; it's through this aperture (which evokes that of a camera) that Lewis steps to gain admission to Freud's office, which is tastefully appointed with chairs, a sofa, and a desk that's crowded with statuettes, mostly of the fertility goddess sort. The chamber belongs to Freud, in other words; it's a camera obscura, a place devoted, by its nature, to the operations of physics and the physical world. But the dazzle of light that enters the chamber is Lewis and his belief -- and if this snapshot of human endeavor and accomplishment possesses beauty, then that beauty has etched itself thanks to the interplay of that light, ineffable as it is, with the grave and stolid factuality of darkness. Or is it science that's the light, shining outward and beacon-like?

Questions upon questions come tumbling from this elegantly scripted and well-produced work. The answer -- all the answers, perhaps -- comes down, I fancy, to hopeful affirmation, a wise and laughing Yes.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.