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THEATER REVIEW: “Freud’s Last Session”

Wouldn’t you like to have been a fly on the wall when Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis got together to discuss problems like sex, evil, morality and human suffering?

They probably never did, but playwright Mark St. Germain imagines such a meeting in the fascinating San Diego premiere of “Freud’s Last Session,” playing through Nov. 9 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

Set in London on Sept. 3, 1939, two days after the Nazi invasion of Poland marking the beginning of World War II, Lewis arrives at Freud’s office noting the flurry of evacuations going on outside.

At 83, Freud (Michael Santo) is a giant in his field but dying of oral cancer that required the removal of his palate and upper jaw. The prosthesis that replaced it (in order to keep food out of the nasal cavity) is ill-fitting and a source of considerable pain.

Lewis (Bruce Turk), at 40, represents not only the next generation of intellectuals but the opposite side of the debate they will engage in here.

The conversation will range over many topics, from war to whether there is a moral law or only teaching inculcated by one’s parents, the place of myth in society, sexuality (of course!), and perhaps the thorniest religious question of all: how to explain the existence of human suffering.

Freud, the atheist psychoanalyst, wants to chalk faith up to an “obsessional neurosis,” and theorizes that Lewis, who came to Christianity late, was “the victim of either a conversion experience of a hallucinatory psychosis,” citing St. Paul.

Lewis counters that it was nowhere near that dramatic: “I was struck by a thought in the sidecar of my brother’s motorbike on our way to the zoo.”

Lewis’ probing intellect finds holes in Freud’s logic – and amusement in this offhand remark: “Psychoanalysis doesn’t profess the arrogance of religion, thank God.”

Santo’s Freud is irascible and a bit imperious in the face of the young upstart Lewis, but made very human by the pain of his illness (he would die by his own hand a few weeks after this imaginary encounter takes place).

St. Germain keeps this from becoming a sterile exercise in intellectualism by tossing in the humanizing details of Freud’s illness and by adding phone calls, an air raid siren and occasional radio announcements from 10 Downing Street about the war. Director David Ellenstein helps out by adding judicious movement of the protagonists.

Santos and Turk take it from there, with the help of Marty Burnett’s terrific set for Freud’s office featuring lots of bookshelves, art on the walls and many lovely statues on Freud’s desk.....fodder for more discussion about mythology.

Nothing will be resolved here, but “Freud’s Last Session” (based on Armand Nicholl’s 2002 book “The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life”) is a piece for those who would enjoy a robust and intellectual discussion between two of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers.

The details

“Freud’s Last Session” plays through Nov. 9 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, California.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 481-1055 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.