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The Great Debate: Freud's Last Session Addresses the Big Questions

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In Mark St. Germain's play, Freud's Last Session, which is receiving its Chicago premiere with the original New York cast, director and producers, he imagines what would happen if a young C. S. Lewis and the infamous psychoanalyst Dr. Sigmund Freud were to spend an afternoon together debating softball topics such as, oh, the meaning of life and the existence of God.

Lewis (Mark H. Dold), a devout Anglican, has been invited to Freud's London office for unknown reasons. Freud (Martin Rayner), who's suffering from the late-stage oral cancer which requires him to wear a nearly medieval mouth prosthesis, keeps him guessing, but soon the topic at hand becomes clear: how can a man as seemingly brilliant as Lewis believe in such an "insidious" lie as the existence of God? Lewis argues that it is indeed possible for an educated man to believe in science and also have faith.

While a tad contrived, St. Germain's setup, which was inspired by Dr. Armand S. Nicholi Jr.'s 2003 book The Question of God, offers ample opportunity for these two brilliant and opposing minds to spar off in a game of theological showdown. Both sides of the argument are delivered with equal passion. Yet, Lewis, who's just beginning his ascent as an intellectual giant, comes out of the discussion relatively unscathed, while Freud, who's approaching his final weeks, seems worse for wear, though seemingly invigorated by the 1.5 hour debate.

However, to level the playing field, St. Germain has set the imagined meeting two days before the start of WWII. The impending threat of bombing momentarily suspends their sparring, causing Lewis to be shaken back into his days on the battlefront and Freud to recall the horror that he narrowly escaped when he fled Austria for Britain.

Under Tyler Marchant's direction, this two-hander clips along with wit and charm. While at times I found the piece a little speechifying -- more a forensics debate than actual theatre -- there are a few true last-minute moments of humanity (which are magnified by Rayner and Dold's expertly nuanced performances) that bring a bit of much-needed heart into the brainy subject matter.

"Freud's Last Session" is currently playing at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave. More info here >