Have we duly noted our collective obsession with the conclusion of things? Freud’s Last Session. Krapp’s Last Tape. The Last Days of Pompeii. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The Last Hurrah. The Last Lecture. The Last of the Mohicans. The Last Temptation of Christ. “Let’s get it over!” screams Ham at the end of – ahem – Endgame. Is there any of us who, at one time or another, hasn’t screamed the same thing?
We crave, of course, to get the mystery resolved, whether it is the mystery of the play we are seeing or the mystery of our lives. For Sigmund Freud (Rick Foucheux) it is the ultimate mystery which he wants desperately to resolve before his own play is over for good. Eleven years previous, Freud had written “The Future of an Illusion,” a scathing indictment of religion as worse than hallucination – as a neurotic response to human insecurity. If there is a vengeful God, he has gotten Freud back good.
It is 1938, and Freud is dying of oral cancer – his upper jaw and palate surgically removed and replaced with an ill-fitting prosthesis, which fills him with a world of pain. Moreover, the cancer continues to progress: soon the tumors will burst through his cheeks. His own beloved dog will not approach him because of the smell of decayed flesh. Further, the Nazis have taken over his lifelong Viennese home, and driven him to exile in London.
You’d think a confirmed atheist like Freud would take the absence of God as affirmed by every element of the chaotic cruelty which surrounds him. Yet here he is, in his home office (the set by Deb Booth is brilliant, for reasons I’ll share in a minute), with a bewildering array of icons bristling on his desk: ancient gods, fetishes, and totems, as if set to do war against whatever misery bedevils his next patient, or against his advancing cancer. He is awaiting the arrival of C.S. Lewis (Todd Scofield), England’s foremost defender of Christianity.
When Lewis arrives late – London is being evacuated in anticipation of war with Germany, and traffic is impossible – Freud lights into him with this challenge: how could a man of his obvious intelligence, who so recently agreed with Freud about God, suddenly change his mind and embrace a lie? Did he have a conversion experience, like Saul at Tarsus? No, the Donnish Lewis replies, voice as round as a honeydew melon and mellow as an oboe. Saul was hit by lightning. Lewis was on the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle. When he got on, he was an atheist. When he got off, he believed.
Mark St. Germain’s story is essentially a play of ideas – a passionate debate about the human soul. But it is more than a dialectic. “What really attracted me was the idea of putting two figures onstage who believed totally opposite things,” St. German told DCTS’ Deryl Davis in this excellent interview. “The conflict was already there, but the challenge was to put two living, breathing human beings onstage, instead of two sets of ideas.”
Though St. Germain puts the elements necessary for a human dynamic into the play, it takes a first-rate production to bring them out. Theater J and director Serge Seiden give us one, and Foucheux and Scofield are marvelous midwives. Foucheux, a Theater J mainstay who is generally acknowledged to be one of the Washington area’s best actors, unobtrusively gives us an acting clinic. Significantly younger and larger than the founder of psychiatry, here wizened at 83, Foucheux represents his pain in every wincing step and every quiver of his voice. There is nothing showy about this:
Foucheux is Freud, not Freud’s pain, but pain is so thoroughly integrated into the performance that you think of it only when Freud becomes sharp or impatient, or when he, horribly, chokes on the blood that seeps out when his tumors war with his inadequate prosthesis. Foucheux labors with an additional challenge: Freud’s beard makes it difficult for him to act with his face. Foucheux conveys everything he needs to with his eyes, though.
FREUD’S LAST SESSION
Closes June 29, 2014
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $45 – $65
Wednesdays thru Sundays
They go back and forth on Booth’s marvelous set, which appears to meticulously represent a psychiatrist’s office as it might be in 1938. (Both characters make self-conscious references to Freud’s famed psychoanalysis couch, which sits prominently stage left.) But Booth’s real genius is in the garden behind the glass door in the middle of the room. It is filled with morning fog, a mist which matches the mystery they are trying to unravel. “I don’t suppose we should have expected to resolve this in a morning,” Lewis says, correctly, as he departs. Or at all.
There are a dozen human elements contained in this story – the horror of the last war, the terror of the next one’s likelihood, the pain of history – both social and personal – and of debilitating disease, the unexpected occurrence of beauty and joy – to elevate it beyond the abstract principals of the argument, and to make it less an exploration of the existence of God than of the possibility of hope. In the end, Freud, three weeks from his suicide by morphine, does an astonishing act which allows him, in lieu of solving the mystery, to embrace it.
Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain . Directed by Serge Seiden . Featuring Rick Foucheux and Todd Scofield . Set design: Deb Booth . Lighting design: Dan Wagner . Costume design: Ivania Stack . Sound design: Eric Shimelonis . Props design: Deb Thomas . Production Stage Manager: Karen Currie, assisted by Jessica Soriano . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Susan Davidson . CurtainUp!
Alix Cohen . WomanAroundTown
Adam Sylvain . ShowBizRadio
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Lisa Traiger . Washington Jewish Week
Maya Oliver . MDTheatreGuide
Jane Horwitz . Washingtonian
Benjamin Tomchik . BroadwayWorld
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
John Stoltenberg . DCMetroTheaterArts