What did Lamb’s Players Theatre Artistic Director, Robert Smyth, choose for his next major project after mounting the Craig Noel Award winning Les Miserables? He simultaneously revived an earlier version of Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Lamb’s Horton Grand Theatre and stars as the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud in Coronado.
Inspired by Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr’s book, The Question of God, and with echoes of the creation vs. evolution courtroom drama, Inherent the Wind, Freud’s Last Session depicts a fictional meeting between Freud and renowned writer C. S. Lewis (Fran Gercke) on September 3, 1939. The atheist Austrian Jewish neurologist invited C.S. to his study in Hampstead, NW London, to talk about God. Sigmund is equally intrigued and appalled that C.S., a former atheist, converted to Christianity in 1931. Sigmund and C.S. get into a lengthy discussion about whether religion helps or harms society.
Mark St. Germain’s script helped make the original New York Off-Broadway staging a hit, and there are many reasons what that occurred. Even though the encounter between the legends is completely fabricated, he paints both men in deeply compassionate ways.
He does not make either side of their debate seem wrong. Rather, Germain wants the audience to understand C.S. and Sigmund’s worldviews, and how it impacted their lives.
Similar to an actual extended conversation, Germain has the 20th century thinkers go off topic and transition into amusing and occasionally funny tangents. He brings up other concepts besides religion including humor, sex, fantasy-fiction, music and suicide. This keeps the evening from being a one-note affair, making the plot even more relatable to theatregoers.
Smyth and Gercke develop an instant rapport with each other, which humanizes the brilliant titans. If Smyth looks eerily similar to Freud when he’s in character, some historians could complain that Gercke, looking dapper in Juliet Czoka’s costume, appears more youthful than C.S. did in 1939. However, there is no denying that the performers are equally successful in exploring their personalities, warts and all, and not stumbling into caricature.
Although they have their differences, C.S. and Sigmund bond quite a bit throughout the night. While this arguably could lesson tension for some, there are enough unexpected dramatic sequences to catch spectators off guard.
Lamb’s Associate Artistic Director, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, not only knows how to get the best work from the actors, but she also has a keen eye for rich visuals. Smyth and scenic designer, Mike Buckley, make Sigmund’s study seem like a mini shrine full of books and small statues. Nathan Pierson’s smooth lighting makes every detail visible, including haunting images that are hard to properly articulate such as C.S.’s reflection on Sigmund’s window.
Freud’s Last Session does not sugercoat the WWII time period, and Smyth partially explores this era with her audio. BBC announcements from Russell Copley as well as alarms warning of a potential air raid make Freud’s house seem like a place that can unfortunately be destroyed at any second.
Quibbles can be made about minor issues with Germain’s story, including a ringing phone conveniently dropping tension in heated moments, or C.S. perhaps reminding Sigmund once too many times that he was an atheist before becoming a Christian. Yet, Germain’s prose, the acting and Smyth’s direction never allow the play to sag for more than a beat. In fact, the 85 minute one act is so entertaining, that one can imagine a two or three hour version being just as impactful.
Robert Smyth has once again come through for Lamb’s with his moving and methodical work as Sigmund. Instead of letting all the praise for Les Miserables get to his head, Smyth has made smart choices to prove that he is still a hard working and versatile artist. This is a fact that C.S. and maybe even Sigmund would appreciate.