Sept. 3, 1939: Neville Chamberlain is on the radio announcing that Britain is at war with Germany, and Sigmund Freud is in his London study debating the existence of God with C.S. Lewis.
Germany lost the war; the battle between Freud and Lewis comes out a draw.
That doesn’t make “Freud’s Last Session” any less satisfying. Putting two of the greatest philosophical minds of the 20th century together to spar over faith is a sort of intellectual Super Bowl, and in this case the audience is the winner.
To make it work, the imaginary encounter (making its regional premiere at Road Less Traveled Theater) requires actors up to the argument, and it found them in David Oliver as Freud and Matt Witten as Lewis. Together on stage, they bring their historical characters to life with energetic advocacy. Freud gets to be on the offensive: The action takes place at Freud’s home, he is more than twice Lewis’ age, and he is dying, giving him no reason to equivocate.
Lewis in 1939 is still pre-“Narnia” and “The Screwtape Letters.” He is just beginning to come into his own as a Christian apologist, and initially he defers to his host – while not conceding to him. It starts as soon as he apologetically arrives with a polite, “I’m sorry to be late.”
“If I wasn’t 83, I’d say it doesn’t matter,” Freud snaps back.
Oliver nails Freud’s impatient need to feed his curiosity about Lewis’ faith, faith that endures in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
Lewis, a less-open personality, reveals himself more slowly. Witten captures his initial discomfort with a stiff formality. He doesn’t know why Freud has summoned him, or what he is doing there on this critical and historic day, and bides his time.
At first, playwright Mark St. Germain builds the debate between the two – who never met during their famous lives – on their reputations. Lewis thinks Freud wants to criticize a satire he wrote that mocked a Freud-like character. Freud dismisses it, saying he never read the book.
Freud suggests Christians find Satan a convenient scapegoat for all their problems done “as easily as Hitler blames the Jews.”
Lewis counters that Freud’s world view is reductionist and egotistical, telling him, “How terrifying it would be to realize you are wrong.”
In lesser hands, the entire show could devolve into a sort of cable news shouting match. But St. Germain has a wealth of good material to draw from and he uses it well. The spirited conversation also respects the men’s genuine wit and humor. One lighter interchange has Lewis quoting Freud to himself about the need for humor in dire situations – though he also tells him his jokes are lousy.
The show, directed by Katie Mallinson with set design by Dyan Burlingame, is a fast 80 minutes or so, interrupted by onstage telephone calls and radio announcements but not by an intermission.
That’s as is should be. Once these two get going, it takes a war to break them up.