‘Freud’s Last Session’ proves theatrical gem
Posted: Thursday, March 7, 2013 12:00 pm
Reviewed by FRAN HELLER
A drama centering on a debate about the existence of God seems an unlikely subject for entertainment. Mark St. Germain’s entertaining “Freud’s Last Session” proves otherwise.
Inspired by Armand Nicholi Jr.’s “The Question of God,” with Neil Thackaberry’s bracing direction and crackling performances by Brian Zoldessy as Freud and Keith Stevens as C.S. Lewis, “Freud’s Last Session” is 80 straight minutes of intelligent and irresistible theater.
The play centers on a fictitious meeting between Freud, the atheist father of psychoanalysis, and Lewis as an Oxford don and recent convert to Christianity. While it revolves around their antithetical belief systems, the war of wits between these two towering intellects includes an engrossing discussion about sex, death, war, Hitler and the role of humor.
It’s Sept. 3, 1939, the eve of World War II. Freud, 83, is terminally ill with oral cancer; Lewis, 40, has yet to write his famous “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Freud has invited Lewis to London to debate religion; the man of science and reason cannot understand why this rising literary star could embrace theism. The play takes on the aura of dialectic, a Talmudic dispute about the existence of God.
Rory Wohl’s handsome setting of Freud’s book-lined study, complete with artifacts from antiquity, draws the audience into the debate.
Zoldessy turns every role into theatrical gold. The veteran Jewish actor makes Freud’s prickly, cynical nature and the pain from his illness come alive. With faltering gait, imperious mien and impeccable Viennese accent, he creates an indelible portrait of Freud.
Despite a wobbly English dialect, Stevens holds his own as a brilliant academic as impassioned in his beliefs as Freud is about his non-belief. Religion makes room for science; why can’t science make room for religion? asks a forceful Lewis.
Both despised their fathers as men of faith who drove their sons away from religion. Freud bitterly relates an anecdote about his father, an Orthodox Jew. When Freud was a child, he saw a man knock his father’s hat off and shout, “Get off the sidewalk, Jew.” Freud’s father did, saying nothing, doing nothing. His father’s greatest influence, says Freud, was making him realize who not to be.
Freud grows agitated when the discussion turns to war, Hitler and persecution of the Jews. When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declares war against Germany, he reacts. “There will always be monsters like Hitler,” Freud says. “We
cannot survive without enemies; they are as necessary as air.”
Freud is also critical of Jesus’ teachings. Should Poland turn the other cheek and love its neighbor when German tanks are destroying its homes? he asks rhetorically.
Humor provides relief from the heavy subject matter. When Lewis apologizes for being late, Freud answers, “If I wasn’t 83, it wouldn’t matter.” When an air raid siren proves a false alarm, the avowed atheist mutters, “Thank God,” then corrects himself, saying, “It’s a bad habit.”
Plays of ideas are rare today. That’s good reason to see “Freud’s Last Session.”
FREUD’S LAST SESSION a fascinating look at belief or lack of belief
Roy Berko, Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle
Sigmund Freud founded the discipline of psychoanalysis. His concepts centered on sexual drives, parental influences, transference, dream interpretation and unconscious desires. Known as an atheist, he was not without religion. He was an assimilated secular Jew.
C. S. Lewis was a novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian and Christian apologist who wrote such works as The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia. At age 15 he declared himself an atheist. At 32 he returned to the Anglican Communion and fervently re-embraced God and Christianity.
What would have happened if these two men had met to discuss their conflicting ideas? They may, in fact, have met as there is an illusion in Freud’s records that he had an appointment with someone who may have been Lewis. If the duo met or not, we can eavesdrop in on playwright Mark St. Germain’s concept of the interaction in FREUD’S LAST SESSION, a two-character "what-if" play now on stage at Actor’s Summit.
The play is based on the best selling book The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.
The setting: Freud’s study in his London house. It’s September 3, 1939, and, as the room’s radio informs us, the war between England and Germany is about to break out. As the two debate, air raid sirens wail and Freud, a life-long smoker, is pain-ripped due to mouth cancer which requires him to wear an uncomfortable oral prosthesis.
Freud purported that those who believed in God were suffering from obsessional neurosis. Lewis thought that human existence depended on the belief in a supreme being. A lively, contentious, yet joke-filled debate takes place, and though they approach ideas quite differently, they find themselves bonding in ways they might not have expected.
The script is filled with many insightful statements and questions that can excite or incite strong feelings. These include: “Satan is a brilliant creation,” “Is there a moral law?” “Is shame a good thing?” “Are our deepest desires ever satisfied?” “The God of the Bible is a busybody.” “Is the story of Christ the greatest myth of all time?” There is also the revelation that both Freud and Lewis had bad relationships with their fathers, which taught them “how not to be adults.”
Hanging over the end of the play is whether Freud will, as he has indicated, destroy himself before the cancer can do it. We do know, in fact, that two weeks after the date of the play, Freud, assisted by his doctor, did end his own life. This adds to the intrigue of the script as Freud tells Lewis that if Lewis is right about his belief in the afterlife, he can tell Freud about it in heaven, but if Freud is right, then neither of them will ever know the truth.
The 90-minute intermissionless production, which is mainly talk with little action, is excellent.
Brian Zoldessy, last year’s Cleveland Critics Circle and Times Theatre Tributes best actor winner for his portrayal of Larry Kramer in Ensemble’s THE NORMAL HEART, is compelling as Freud. He inhabits the role to the degree that the viewer forgets s/he is in a theatre and is actually part of the conversation and partaking in the character’s physical pain. His slight Austrian accent allows for the correct effect, without making understanding difficult.
Keith Stevens holds his own as C. S. Lewis. His English accent comes and goes, but he is consistent in developing Lewis’s uptight moralistic attitude. His highlight is a scene in which he has a PTSD-type reaction to a radio command to put on of gas masks based on his horrific military battle experiences in World War I.
No credit is given in the program to whoever collected the numerous props on stage, but bravo to that person. Ditto for the set design which well illustrates the script’s line of “One hundred colors around you.” The rugs, Freud’s famous psychoanalysts couch, and decorations all set the right mood.
Capsule judgement: FREUD’S LAST SESSION is a must see, fascinating theatre, for anyone who is interested in a philosophical, thought laced drama, with laughter and fine acting.
Theater review: ‘Freud’s Last Session’ at Actors’ Summit
By Kerry Clawson Beacon Journal staff writer
Published: March 5, 2013 - 10:30 PM
Sparring about the existence of God creates fascinating drama at Actors’ Summit in Akron in the absorbing play Freud’s Last Session, by Mark St. Germain.
This work gets into the inner psyches, belief systems and hearts of two seminal figures of the 20th century — Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis — as they engage in a battle of intellect in Freud’s London study. Given such weighty topics, St. Germain never ventures too far into the highbrow, but rather delivers an entertaining play full of humor and heart.
Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, has fled Nazi persecution in Austria and has invited young Oxford professor Lewis to visit him. The year is 1939, on the day England enters World War II. In Freud’s beautifully appointed study, designed by Rory Wohl with numerous richly colored Persian rugs, the psychotherapist’s comfy-looking couch is ever present.
Actors Brian Zoldessy and Keith Stevens create subtle humor as Freud and Lewis tease each other about who needs to lie on the couch. One of the greatest things about this play is that the two characters take turns rising to the top in their intellectual power struggle, with each at times needing the couch as he reveals his deepest fears or pain.
Zoldessy, a theater professor and director at Cuyahoga Community College, brilliantly brings to life Freud’s crusty, dry humor as well as his physical infirmity at age 83. The sparring is more friendly than adversarial, as these men ultimately prove that they respect each other.
Under Neil Thackaberry’s direction, the chemistry in this two-man show is delightful. Zoldessy, making his Actors’ Summit debut, has an impressive resume including work on and Off-Broadway as well as in TV and film. (Eight years ago, his work was unforgettable as the neurotic, mentally disabled Arnold in The Boys Next Door at Porthouse Theatre.)
Stevens, a regular at Actors’ Summit, is a multitalented actor who always delivers an excellent performance. The two actors have the famous Actors’ Studio in common: Stevens is a lifetime member after studying there in New York, and Zoldessy has been associated with the Actors’ Studio both in New York and in Los Angeles.
Zoldessy evokes Freud’s curmudgeonliness and Stevens paints a more proper, restrained Lewis. A big commonality is their resentment of their fathers: Freud despised his Orthodox Jewish father as a “bitter failure” and Lewis disliked his tyrant father intensely.
This fictional story, suggested by The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr., occurs 20 days before Freud’s death. It is a study in contrasts, as Freud suffers from inoperable oral cancer and Lewis is headed toward the high points of his career, having not yet written The Chronicles of Narnia or The Screwtape Letters. St. Germain employs rich language and brutal imagery as Lewis speaks of the hell of World War I and Freud, at times choking on his own blood, reveals the physical agony of having his upper jaw replaced by an implant.
So why has Freud invited Lewis to his home? The psychoanalyst reveals that he wants to learn how an intellectual can “abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie’’ — what he calls religion.
Zoldessy’s Freud argues vehemently against religion, yelling that God cannot be proven historically. Lewis says his religious conversion was slow but his belief in Jesus as the son of God is now simple.
“Things are simple only when you choose not to examine them,’’ Freud counters. That’s just one of the volleys in their debates about religion, morality, war and sex.
In Freud’s Last Session, Zoldessy and Stevens play a moment of panic beautifully, when air raid sirens go off and the men scramble for gas masks. This scene reveals that Lewis, recently converted to Christianity, is not comfortable about meeting his maker and Freud, who had said he is ready to die, really isn’t.
This drama is a work of fiction but it explores some of the weightiest issues of 1939 Europe. Against the backdrop of World War II, it captures a tumultuous moment in world history and brings alive what might have been, had such a meeting between these two cultural giants actually occurred.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freud’s Last Session
WJCU radio review for Arts On The Heights
By Fred Dolan
Hello, Cleveland. This is Fred Dolan for Arts On The Heights.
I was delighted when I heard that Actors Summit in Akron was producing Freud’s Last Session, the off Broadway hit from a few years ago.
Freud’s Last Session is an imagined meeting between Freud and C.S. Lewis.
The setting is Freud’s home in England. It’s September 3, 1939, the day that England enters the war against Germany and Hitler. Freud and his family were Jewish and left Germany after his daughter Anna was interrogated by the Nazis in 1938. Freud is also dieing of mouth cancer. He is extremely uncomfortable with an upper jaw prosthesis that causes chaffing and bleeding. He will be dead in a few weeks.
Freud has invited Lewis to his study to question him over why he abandoned atheism and embraced the Catholic church. During the course of the one act meeting, world history, personal history, and where God fits into the mix are all part of this fascinating exercise.
The two men respect each as they joust verbally - each one scoring points. With no clear cut winner, it’s a great meeting of the minds., Intelligent, fascinating and entertaining stuff for the brain.
For this play to work, you need two pretty equal heavyweight actors to slug it out with each other and Brian Zoldessy as Freud and Keith Stevens as Lewis are terrific together.
Each maintaining an unshakable view on whether God does or does not exist, yet almost always keeping the discussion on an intellectual level. Zoldessy’s Freud is beautiful mix of his physical discomfort and old age as he approaches death, coupled with Freud’s undiminished mental ability, with a hint of whether there may be a God. It’s a memorable performance.
Steven’s C.S. Lewis is properly British with a bit of hero worship thrown in for Freud, but also a man firm in his convictions. As the British might say, “Well done!”
If exciting theater is your game, make the trip to Akron.
Freud’s Last Session runs Thursday through Sunday through March 17. The theater is located in downtown Akron in Greystone Hall at 103 S. High Street and features free, guarded parking.
For complete details, visit actorssummit.org.
This is Fred Dolan for Arts On The Heights. .
‘Will Rogers’ U.S.A.’ a hit at Actors’ Summit
Fran Heller, Cleveland Jewish News
With his cowboy hat, bandana and folksy manner, a gum-chewing Thackaberry creates a very likeable facsimile of Will Rogers. For 90 non-stop minutes, Thackaberry regales with pithy aphorisms and wry observations on subject matter spanning American Indians, politics, medicine, education, foreign policy and war, his sentiments sounding uncannily contemporary.
Directed by George Roth, Thackaberry moves around and across the stage, engaging his audience like next-door neighbors.
The youngest of eight children, William Penn Adair Rogers was born Nov. 4, 1879 in Oklahoma to parents of Cherokee descent. A doctor could bring you into the world for two bucks, quips Rogers, adding that families with fewer than eight children meant the father was either divorced or in jail.
Juiciest are the observations Rogers makes on politics, political conventions, and political parties: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”
His opinion about taxes reflects his liberal leanings as a staunch Democrat.
“Where’s the money coming from that we’re spending?” he asks. “It ought to be coming from them that got it.”
Rogers’ pointed comments on war hit home. “War is the only game where everyone loses. No nation should be allowed to enter a war until it’s paid for the last one.”
The raconteur describes a trip to Europe where people blame America for everything. In Paris, he said, tourists were hissed and stoned but not before finishing their shopping.
Rogers, known for his amazing skills with a rope, even throws a few rope tricks, one of which fails. The post just moved to the right, says Rogers with a wink.
His most incisive remarks address the gap between haves and have-nots.
“No country in the history of the world has more; no country has less. Ten guys could buy the world; 10 million not enough to eat.”
On politicians, presidents and Congress, Rogers, whose formal education stopped after fourth grade, had this to say:
“No President can hurt America; we’re too big … We have the best politicians money can buy … Congress makes a joke, it’s a law; Congress makes a law, it’s a joke … America is a great country in spite of its government, not because of it.”
I don’t think anyone loved America more than Will Rogers, which enabled him to poke such gentle fun at this country, all in good humor. Sadly, Rogers’ life was cut short in 1935 in a plane crash in Alaska.
The show ends with sage advice: “Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip. No malice in your heart; no malice in your gags.”
Will Rogers, U.S.A. at Actors’ Summit gets my vote.
Theater review: ‘Bully’ showcases actor’s talents
Bully: An Adventure With Teddy Roosevelt is a tour de force for actor Neil Thackaberry, who sweeps the audience along through this historic figure’s adventures in a one-man show at Actors’ Summit.
From his opening moments dramatizing one of Roosevelt’s vigorous walking expeditions, to his enactment of Roosevelt’s twilight years as the former president dreams of his former military prowess, Thackaberry creates rich insight into Roosevelt’s dramatic life.
Thackaberry’s booming voice embodies Roosevelt’s renowned boldness and exuberance. And with the help of a toupee, long mustache and glasses, the actor creates a believable physical likeness to the robust 26th president of the United States, who served from 1901 to 1909.
Roosevelt was a rough-and-tumble sort of guy, but he could also quote Shakespeare and Goethe. He was Harvard-educated, yet he never felt he fit in with the genteel scholars there.
Jerome Alden’s 1977 script has a heavy share of political stories, but it rarely gets bogged down. Chief among the political conflicts is Roosevelt’s description of his failed attempt to wrest the Republican nomination from incumbent William Howard Taft in 1912.
Much of that action takes place on the campaign trail, with Thackaberry delivering speeches from a railing that symbolizes a train.
Rory Wohl’s handsome set is dominated by rich wood panels, a leather chair, desk and large portrait of Roosevelt at center stage, nicely lit by Kevin Rutan. Wohl researched Roosevelt’s study at his beloved Sagamore Hill home on Long Island, a National Historic Site, to re-create the gracious space.
In Bully, Thackaberry’s most soul-stirring moment comes when his Roosevelt describes the death of his young wife, Alice, two days after giving birth to their daughter. In describing this tragedy on Valentine’s Day 1884, playwright Jerome Alden used the only words from his diary that day: “The light has gone out of my life.”
In another high point, Thackaberry personifies a heartbroken Roosevelt who, dressed in his signature Rough Riders uniform, is turned down by President Woodrow Wilson to lead the volunteer regiment in World War I. This painful scene is followed by a flashback to Roosevelt’s glory days in the Spanish-American War.
One-man shows depicting historical figures are a specialty in Thackaberry’s repertoire: Over the years he has also portrayed John Brown and Clarence Darrow.
Roosevelt was a tough guy whose adventures led him from living as a cowboy in North Dakota to exploring the Brazilian jungle. Yet he was also known to play hide and seek and have pillow fights in the White House with his four sons.
Through BULLY, we learn that his contributions to today’s pop culture in America include the teddy bear, the plush toy created and named after Roosevelt after it was reported he wouldn’t kill a bear cub during a hunting trip. Roosevelt, who lived from 1858 to 1919, also left us with the famous foreign policy slogan “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
At Actors’ Summit, each performance is followed by illuminating talks with Roosevelt scholar Mark Dawidziak. He stresses in the program notes that Roosevelt was a study in contradictions: a warmonger and Nobel Peace Prize winner; a big game hunter yet an avid conservationist.
Alden’s script draws forth these contradictions without hitting audience members over the head.
Roosevelt’s life was so vivid in his mere 60 years that Bully is full of satisfyingly dramatic moments. Thanks to Thackaberry, the rich history of a man who came to be known as one of America’s greatest presidents comes alive on stage.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.
By David Ritchey
DOWNTOWN AKRON — Actors’ Summit Theater has brought Teddy Roosevelt to life with its production of “Bully, An Adventure with Teddy Roosevelt.”
Roosevelt (1858–1919) was the 26th president of the United States and the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (1906). Despite the fact he was physically weak as a child, Roosevelt developed a robust lifestyle and lived to be 60.
A Republican, Roosevelt seemed to swing to all areas of the political spectrum — conservative and liberal. He invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House, making him the first African-American to eat a meal in the White House.
Playwright Jerome Alden wrote “Bully” for James Whitmore. The production, featuring Whitmore, ran in the 46th Street Theater in New York City in 1997. Alden may be best known for being the executive story editor and writer for the “Bicentennial Minutes,” a series of instant history lessons that ran on CBS in 1976.
“Bully” has one large problem — it’s a one-person show. Audiences find it difficult to sit for 90 minutes (the length of “Bully”) with the monotony of only one actor performing. However, Neil Thackaberry provided excellent vocal and emotional variety in the production.
Director Peter Voinovich helped his actor overcome the problems associated with a one-man show. Voinovich brought Thackaberry into vocal variety and emotional diversity. Voinovich showed great personal strength in directing his father-in-law, who is a well-known actor, through a one-man show. Neither man can blame a problem on other members of the cast.
Thackaberry was strong in this production, moving from a man who shouts “Bully” when he’s excited to breaking down in tears at the death of his son. The story starts in the White House when Roosevelt becomes president at the death of President William McKinley.
However, the action skips backward and forward to provide important information about other parts of Roosevelt’s life. Thackaberry, aided by a few hats and coats, moves Roosevelt through the major events in the president’s life. From what is indicated in this script, Roosevelt enjoyed being president. However, toward the end of his life, when, finally, Woodrow Wilson was elected president, Roosevelt was, in many ways, a defeated man. And Roosevelt was crushed by the death of his son in the war.
Rory Wohl (set design) brought to the stage one of the most visually exciting sets Actors’ Summit has offered. Wohl’s set has several levels, with steps and platforms. The set included a life-size painting of Roosevelt, the heads of two animals and painting of flowers. These items represent the interest of Roosevelt’s life. Wohl included large carpets, which looked expensive and kept down the sound of the actor walking around on the platforms.
This exceptional set, combined with Kevin Rutan’s excellent lighting, provided an appropriate backdrop by the telling of Roosevelt’s story.
Thackaberry and the company at Actors’ Summit have offered an interesting production that moves the audience intellectually and emotionally. This fine production plays through Feb. 5 at Greystone Hall, 103 S. High St. For ticket information, call 330-374-7568 .
David Ritchey has a Ph.D. in communications and is a professor of communications at The University of Akron. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.