Freud's Last Session/by Mark St. Germain/directed by Tyler Marchant/The Broad Stage, Santa Monica/through February 10
For those desiring a complete biographical depiction of the life of Sigmund Freud, Freud's Last Session may disappoint. Written by Mark St. Germain, the one- act treats one meeting at the end of Freud's life, in which he discusses pretty much the existence of God and the mysteries of life. There are plenty of details alluding to Freud's wife Martha and daughter Ana, but little to enlighten about his theory of psychoanalysis. Nor are there a lot of references to his views on sex, except where they concern God and conflicting religious perspectives. How St. Germain manages to capture our attention is through a very tight, sweetly humane script played out in 80 minutes by two superb actors - Judd Hirsch as Freud and Tom Cavanaugh as author C.S. Lewis - under the taut direction of Tyler Marchant.
When two strangers who have opposing opinions on whether God exists come together, there are two possible directions for the play to take. What can result is explosive fire, bitter hatred and rejection of one for the other...or, some surprise element may twist and turn the proceedings a bit and create a more agreeable scenario. St. Germain has chosen the latter. But the ending has no resolution. How could it? This debate could last two hours, two weeks, two years...there still would not be an answer. St. Germain is fully aware of this, so sets the discussion within realistic limits, interrupted by occurrences that change the mood or feelings. This is 1939, London. Air raids pose a constant threat; it's the start of World War II. Another problem: on a personal note, Freud is dying of mouth cancer, and it has gotten so bad, that not only is it painful for him to talk, but the prosthesis in his mouth causes a jarring cough that brings the discussion to an abrupt halt more than once. These two elements - the presence of air raids and Freud's illness - not only disrupt the flow of the intelligent conversation but cause feelings of discomfort to arise and with this change in tone, one of heart as well...on both sides.
The acting under Marchant's skillful hand is terrific. Hirsch and Cavanaugh represent each character with a thorough sense of conviction and truth. It is surprising to see a glimmer of vulnerability in Freud, which Hirsch plays nicely. St. Germain's angle of humanity in the face of crisis allows the two men to experience what is lacking in their lives, especially in Freud's, whose scientific approach to everything has prevented him from feeling joy. St. Germain's use of music illustrates this point quite effectively. There is a brilliant section of the play where Lewis uses the Greek, Roman and Egyptian artifacts all around Freud's study to remind Freud that he is surrounded by gods and mythology, not befitting a scientist. Freud's response? "I'm a collector." Neither character gives in completely to the other, but it is obvious that each is listening and reflecting, especially Freud, who lacks Lewis' Christian-like behavior. Brian Prather's set design of the study brings out the complexities of Freud's character. There are touches of both coldness and warmth, with the visible clutter of art, curious and thought provoking.
Overall, Freud's Last Session offers the satisfaction that it is possible for two learned men to sit down, talk and learn from one another, if only for a short time. St. Germain's piece is, in its own unpredictable and intriguing way, an ode to joy and fine living, and Marchant, Hirsch and Cavanugh make it play.