Two learned men come together to debate the existence of God and wind up discussing mortality, science, faith and love for nearly 75 minutes in "Freud's Last Session." The result is a compelling theatrical work made more riveting by two fervent performances, which is thoughtfully staged in The Rep's Studio Theater.
On Sept. 3, 1939, on the cusp of World War II, legendary Austrian psychoanalyist Dr. Sigmund Freud invited writer C.S. Lewis to his home in northwest London. Freud, terminally ill with oral cancer, wanted to understand how a man, once a professed atheist, would become one of Christianity's staunchest believers. This clash of intellectual titans is fiction written by playwright Mark St. Germain, suggested by the book "The Question of God" by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.
The banter is clever and the issues raised thought-provoking, but this conundrum will likely not sway anyone's deeply ingrained opinions. What the play does best is showcase two historic figures as not just erudite big-brain fellows, but actually respectful of each other, and dare say, caring. Their humanity, when the world is contending with the Third Reich, and in Freud's case, looming death (He died 20 days later.), is what I took away from it most of all.
Jim Butz, as the genteel man of letters Lewis, reveals a painful childhood and a life-altering epiphany. He's matched by Barry Mulholland, robustly displaying the oversized personality of opinionated Freud, who fills his well-appointed study with the booming sound of his voice, recounting the harsh life lessons he's learned in 83 years.
Because of their integrity and passionate immersion into their characters, Butz and Mulholland command one's rapt attention, but they are aided by superb production values. Director Michael Evan Hanley ("Double Indemnity") moves the characters around like chess pieces, and the striking set by scenic designers Peter and Margery Spack visually enhances the experience. The lighting by James Sale and the sound design by Benjamin Marcum heighten the impending wartime danger.
Freud's painful condition becomes more obvious, and a factor in the story as well, and Mulholland genuinely conveys these episodes with believable physicality.
At the conclusion, we can appreciate that we were a fly on the wall for one dynamic exchange of viewpoints, which remain black-and-white, but there was much room for gray matter.
At a glance
"Freud's Last Session"
Who: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
When: through Nov. 24
Where: Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves
Tickets: 314-968-4925, www.repst.org