Richard Newman as Dr. Sigmund Freud, left, and Damon Calderwood as C.S. Lewis. (photo by Damon Calderwood and Chris Robson)
When the air-raid siren goes off, it is hard not to heed it, and seek cover. So engaged does one become in Freud’s Last Session, which is on until Sunday at Galbraith House in New Westminster.
The house is an impressive sight. Built circa 1892, the 30ish audience members are already transported into the past by the time they walk through the front doors. As they take their seats in the living room, literally within breathing distance of the action, the set brings them into the late 1930s – Freud’s wooden desk to the left (that, notably, is covered with divinity statuettes from various cultures), a console radio flanked by two leather chairs in the centre, and the psychiatrist’s couch on the right.
Presented by City Stage New West, the Couch Trip Collective production features veteran actors Richard Newman as Dr. Sigmund Freud and Damon Calderwood as British author C.S. Lewis. In such an intimate space, with such competent actors delivering the dialogue, it is almost a voyeuristic experience. Director Chris Robson keeps the pacing tight, and the sound effects – from the radio, to a ringing phone, to a barking dog, to the aforementioned air-raid siren and rumbling plane engines – add to the immediacy.
Freud has asked Lewis to his home, and the fictional meeting is taking place on Sept. 3, 1939, the day that Britain declares war on Germany. Snippets of Neville Chamberlain’s address and of King George VI’s are played on the radio, as Freud periodically interrupts his discussion with Lewis for updates on the news.
Lewis is nervous at first because he thinks Freud has summoned him out of anger for how Freud is portrayed in Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress. But Freud is more interested in why an intelligent man like Lewis went from being an atheist to embracing Christianity. Their brief conversation gets heated on more than one occasion. Freud is particularly impassioned at times, not only from the strength of his beliefs, but from the exhaustion and frustration of being in constant pain – at 83, he is dying of oral cancer, and the play quite realistically depicts his agony, and the goriness of the disease.
The debate starts with God’s existence, and bounces back to it more than once, but covers a wide range of topics, including the impending war (and Freud’s narrow escape to England from Austria), morality, shame, desire, humor, what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, Jesus, the afterlife, ancient belief systems, suicide, relationships, sex and music. The play avoids becoming bogged down in heavy, philosophical dialogue by only touching upon each topic. An interruption happens – a phone call, a coughing attack, or what have you – after which the discussion generally turns to something else. Another perhaps surprising aspect of Freud’s Last Session is that the script, written by Mark St. Germain, contains many well-timed witty remarks that break up the seriousness of the subject matter, as well as the situation – both the advent of the Second World War and Freud’s intention to kill himself before the cancer does. The result is a play that may not change minds, but it will spark contemplation and discussion, which is more than enough.
Freud’s Last Session is at Galbraith House, 131 Eighth St., New Westminster, until Feb. 9. For tickets, visit brownpapertickets.com/event/549655.