On Stage: The Greatest Question of All

REVIEW: Theater J’s scintillating debate for two intellectual giants.

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and (Photo by Stan Barouh)

It’s always a great fantasy to imagine what it might have been like to witness two intellectual giants of strongly opposing viewpoints sitting down to argue. That’s why Mark St. Germain’s play “Freud’s Last Session” currently playing at Theater J is such a savory piece of theater with two brilliant men grappling with the unresolvable mystery — does God exist?

In this play, the verbal battle of wits and intellect is between the atheist Sigmund Freud (Rick Foucheux) and fervent Christian believer C.S. Lewis (Todd Scofield). Freud, who virtually created psychiatry and the psychoanalytic process, has been forced out of Vienna by the looming Nazi threat and is spending his last year in London where he is dying of mouth and jaw cancer, in constant pain after enduring 33 operations.

It is the late 1930s and Europe is watching the rise of Hitler’s insatiable military machine with trepidation. Freud has asked Lewis — who is 50 years Freud’s junior — to come to London from Oxford University. After his mother died of cancer in spite of all his prayers, he began to question the existence of God at age 10. But after serving in the military during World War I, he became a confirmed atheist. Lewis, who would a decade later write the widely popular, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” came under the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien and other fellow scholars at Oxford and by the 1930s returned to his Christian roots.

Directed by , one of Washington’s most creative directors, the two accomplished actors give mesmerizing performances as the two worthy advisories: a cantankerous Freud who is well aware that he will soon face death, and the sensitive, self-confident Lewis. They joust with each other without rancor, but are wise enough to understand that they are in a discussion neither can win. Freud’s curiosity questions how a man of Lewis’s intellect can accept such an incredulous lie.

Even though the discussion is purely academic, for 80 uninterrupted minutes “Freud’s Last Session” is deliciously provocative and there are humorous asides, even though Freud grumbles that “English humor is still a mystery to me.” Freud has some of the most amusing lines, while the more reasoned and thoughtful come from Lewis.

All the action is in Freud’s study, a turn of the 20th-century period piece elaborately designed by with an Oriental carpet, a large desk and a bookcase with leather-bound volumes. One odd addition is a row of small statues lined up on Freud’s desk of various religious icons and Gods dating back to antiquity. It is a Pantheon of Gods, including Greek, Roman, Egyptian artifacts in a collection that reportedly contained more than 2,000 pieces.

While Freud and Lewis grapple, Freud frequently turns on the radio to listen to news of Hitler’s invasion of Poland. He is awaiting the inevitable announcement of England declaring war on Germany. After each newsbreak, Freud turns off the musical interlude between the official news bulletins. Freud has an inability to take time for music, something that Lewis questions. Taking time to listen to music becomes one of the last things Freud learns in the brief time before his doctor assists him in ending his life with an overdose of morphine some months later.

It is easy to lose oneself in the stimulating atmosphere of battling ideas and beliefs that Seiden has so carefully orchestrated. His deft hand in focusing smart performances from Foucheux and Scofield in such demanding roles creates such believability that it is hard to accept that “Freud’s Last Session” is only a theatrical fantasy.

Freud’s Last Session” continues through July 6, 2014 at Theater J, 1529 16th St NW. Tickets $35-$65 and available 202-777-3210 and online here.

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