By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater
When was the last time you heard people arguing about something important – politics, say, or religion – without raising their voices?
In the modern world, civil discourse has gone the way of the eight-track tape. But not so for the two men who debate the very existence of God in a new drama at Mad Cow Theatre.
That these two men are Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and a confirmed atheist, and C.S. Lewis, the famed novelist and a devout Christian, raises the stakes in Freud’s Last Session, Mark St. Germain’s two-man drama, which opened last summer off-Broadway and is still playing there.
Mad Cow’s production doesn’t turn St. Germain’s script into a whole lot more than an interesting 75-minute face-off. Yet the minds of these two famous men are intriguing enough to make their debate worth the while.
The history of the last 100 years or so has been fertile ground for St. Germain, whose play Camping With Henry and Tom (produced here in 1997 by Orlando Theatre Project) explores the friendship between Thomas Alva Edison and Henry Ford, and who has also written a play about Typhoid Mary.
In Freud’s Last Session, he imagines a fictional meeting between Freud, dying of cancer in September 1939, and Lewis, a young Oxford scholar who had yet to write The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or his other Narniah tales. Lewis had satirized Freud in an allegory called Pilgrim’s Regress, and in the play Freud summons Lewis to his London home to find out how an intelligent man can believe in God.
The two, of course, are markedly different, and at Mad Cow director Rick Stanley allows those contrasts to take center stage. Terry Wells’ Freud is an old man, suffering mightily from cancer of the mouth, who walks gingerly and speaks with a pronounced Austrian accent. This Freud has no patience for what he sees as irrational thought, and Wells plays that up: This is no cuddly old codger but rather a prickly intellectual, and for him social niceties only get in the way.
Steven Lane’s Lewis is a far more personable fellow – pleasant, humorous, warm – and Lane’s character shows a manifest concern for the ailing older man. (The real-life Freud died in an assisted suicide less than three weeks later.) In fact, the two actors’ styles stress their characters’ differences: Wells is measured and cerebral and Lane far more down-to-earth, and those acting styles may lead you to side with one or the other of them as they debate.
That debate may be more or less compelling to theatergoers depending on their level of interest in religion. And it often pales in comparison to its backdrop, the events of the very day that Britain and France declared war on Germany, as air-raid sirens sound and the two men tune in to listen to King George VI making his famous radio speech signaling the start of the war. With all of that happening – with Lewis showing the vestiges of his World War I shell shock and Freud enduring almost unbearable pain – it’s sometimes hard to believe that a theological debate matters so very much.
But it matters, of course, to these two men and to the millions of people who are part of that continuing conversation. I doubt that Freud’s Last Session is going to change anyone’s mind: “We speak different languages,” Freud says. “There is no common ground.” Yet any fan of the intellect will get a charge out of listening to these two minds spin.
‘Freud’s Last Session’
- What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Mark St. Germain drama.
- Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 1205 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
- When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through April 3 (also, 8 p.m. March 30).
- Running time: One hour 15 minutes, with no intermission.
- Cost: $24 general, $22 seniors and students, $15 online or pay what you wish at door March 30.
- Call: 407-297-8788.
- Online: madcowtheatre.com.