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Imagined meeting packs theatrical punch in Theaterworks' 'Freud's Last Session'

Jonathan Crombie and Kenneth Tigar in "Freud's Last Session" at Hartford's Theaterworks
Jonathan Crombie and Kenneth Tigar in "Freud's Last Session" at Hartford's Theaterworks
Lanny Nagler

'Freud's Last Session" at Theaterworks Hartford

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A psychoanalyst and an English professor walk into a bar…or perhaps better yet, a Christian and an atheist walk into a bar. Although there is actually no bar nor any actual punch line in the Mark St. Germain play now playing at Hartford’s Theaterworks through February 23, these set-ups pretty accurately describe the situation audiences will find in Maxwell Williams’ excellent and cogent production of “Freud’s Last Session.”

Kenneth Tigar and Jonathan Crombie in "Freud's Last Session"
Lanny Nagler

The co-Artistic Director of Hartford Stage, making his directing debut at the cross-town theater, Williams carefully guides his cast of two through 90 intermissionless minutes of discussion about the existence and nature of God, the power of disbelief, and the frequently tentative nature of belief itself. If that sounds heavy, then rest assured that it’s nothing of the sort. Thought-provoking, yes, but St. Germain has written a work that is readily accessible to all audiences and quite entertaining as well.

In it, St. Germain posits a meeting between C. S. Lewis, the Oxford Professor and author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and Sigmund Freud, the groundbreaking psychiatrist, in England at the outbreak of the Second World War. History tells us that the two never did meet; at the time Freud was nearing the end of his life suffering from mouth cancer while Lewis was a relatively young but rising academic who had yet to pen his most famous works but was nonetheless beginning to make a name for himself. Freud, of course, was an avowed atheist and Lewis would become known as one of the era’s most intellectual Christian apologists, even though he, ironically, was a convert from his own avowed atheism to the Church of England.

This play is based on a work by Harvard professor, Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life,’ in which both men’s scholarly writings were presented in a side by side format, almost resembling an intellectual argument though the two never even corresponded.

The playwright sets his hypothetical meeting in Freud’s office in England, where the world-renown analyst and his family had fled from the Nazi’s in the 1930’s, on September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland which directly led to Britain’s declaration of war against Germany. We first meet Freud, played with what feels like remarkable accuracy by Kenneth Tigar, as he sits in his London office, marvelously designed to meticulous detail by Evan Adamson, who captured the essence of the Lorraine Motel so stunningly in last year’s Theaterworks production of “The Mountaintop.” Adamson has filled the room with antique furniture, cloths and draperies, including an upholstered settee, along with sagging bookshelves containing Freud’s voluminous library and Freud’s large desk with its collection of figurines representing gods and myths from the world’s cultures.

Tigar manages a commanding turn as Freud, depicting the doctor’s relentless adherence to his own philosophy and his easy dismissal of those who he believes foolishly remain attached to religion. Tigar’s Freud can be frightening and authorative, yet also compassionate and understanding, helping to explain his patients’ reliance on him. He spins Freud’s tales masterfully, whether describing the family’s decision to flee the Nazi’s, his resignation to humanity’s propensity to resolve issues through war and violence, or his enthralled attendance at a performance by the Joseph Pujol, who attained wide fame as the “Fartiste,” for his clever and creative uses of his gas. Tigar serves as the irascible anchor of the play and particularly excels in a scene involving a medical emergency late in the play.

Jonathan Crombie brings an academic propriety to the role of Lewis, who has been invited to visit by Freud. His thirtyish Lewis, unaware that his fame will one day approach that of Freud, is tentative and cautious at first, afraid that the great doctor is going to reprimand him for a strongly negative depiction of Freud in a magazine article. He is determined to remain unapologetic for his nastily satiric take, which nicely sets up the ability of both men to stress and defend their positions all the more. Somewhat unnervingly Crombie’s British accent seems to come and go without warning, and the actor does have a tendency to incorporate some unneeded affectations into Lewis’s demeanor. But Crombie does successful convey the professor’s academic ambitions as well as a convert’s enthusiasm for evangelization. Crombie does prove to be a good verbal sparring partner to Tigar’s Freud, allowing us to recognize his attempts to overcome any intimidation he may feel.

But it is the discussion of ideas that forms the real center of “Freud’s Last Session,” as each man strives to elaborate upon his position and challenge the other’s thinking. In some instances, these challenges are more like heartfelt questions about how the other arrived at a specific position, as the two develop a sort of respect tempered with exasperation for each other.

As director, Williams keeps the dialogue moving at a steady pace, while offering enough visual action to keep the evening from feeling stagnant. The characters move freely about the four or five seats on the set, get up to pour water or turn on the radio, examine the shelved books, and respond to various internal and external emergencies. Tension is also achieved through the radio broadcasts detailing the latest events in Poland and at No. 10 Downing Street, as Freud also receives updates from his daughter who is teaching at a nearby college.

Michael Miceli’s sound design assures that the radio broadcasts retain their authenticity and provides some off-stage life for Freud’s loyal and protective dog. Thomas Charles Legalley has outfitted the two characters in impeccably styled suits and overcoats, while Philip Rosenberg’s lighting design captures the noonday light and the impact of various lamps.

St. Germain is indeed proficient at crafting fictional situations that elucidate historical figures, whether it be Henry Ford and Thomas Edison on a weekend trip (“Camping with Henry and Tom”) or F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway enjoying a drunken evening (“Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah”) or Dr. Ruth Westheimer providing an intimate look at her life (“Becoming Dr. Ruth” which was staged this summer at Theaterworks prior to its recently completed New York City engagement). He has the ability to pick out distinctive remarks from their writings, speeches or correspondence and forming them into interesting and frequently gripping dialogue that fittingly encapsulate the individual’s life and philosophy. “Freud’s Last Session” is one of his most successful forays into this genre and results in a thoroughly compelling evening of theater.

“Freud’s Last Session” plays through February 23 at Hartford’s Theaterworks at 233 Pearl Street in Hartford. For more information, visit the theater’s website at www.theaterworkshartford.org or for tickets contact the Box Office at 860.527.7838.

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