2013 Edmonton Fringe Review: Sigmund Freud's Last Session

As World War II began to dawn, Britain was tensed on the verge of war. Air raid sirens were installed throughout the land, the citizens implored to carry gas masks, and children sent out to the countryside to reduce the civilian impact on mass bombings of cities. During this same time the legendary psychologist Sigmund Freud (with help from HG Wells, Princess Bonaparte, and a Nazi official sympathetic to scientific causes) at great cost and near ruin was able to escape Austria to reside in North London. Here, his daughter Anna re-created his Vienna consulting room and allowed Freud to resume his work. Unfortunately, he only had 15 more months of life left in him.

In Sigmund Freud's Last Session, in the dying days of his life Freud calls on famous author and Oxford professor Clive Staples Lewis to come visit him and discuss a matter weighing heavily on Freud's mind: how a well respected intellectual like CS Lewis could be a famously regarded atheist one day, and an impassioned believer the next. This premise is a fictionalized sort of representation of what the PBS program about the two arguments side-by-side would be if the men actually encountered each other. As they discuss each others lives, take brief turns psychoanalyzing each other, and endure the shocks of the news broadcasts from the early days of the German invasion of Poland, they spar on matters of religious faith and the paths that drove each man to his unassailable position.

Both actors are well suited for their parts, but Randy Ritz's Freud steals the show and leaves Michael Peng looking a little weak as CS Lewis as a result. It also helps for Ritz that he so well embodies the Sigmund Freud we all know in our collective consciousness. The collective awareness of the personality of CS Lewis isn't nearly so strong, so it's harder to get a read on the character: particularly when Lewis is perhaps too often left in the role of the straight man to play off the much more robust and narrative-driving character of Sigmund Freud. "There's no escaping this, is there?" Lewis asks at one point while pointing at the (never once used) couch, during a particularly biting attack by Freud about his relationship with Jane Moore. There isn't, and while Freud gets most of the best lines and the funniest jokes, CS Lewis is the one who gets the philosophizing. It may just be because so much of Freud's attacks on religion are the same worn-out tropes that Stephen Fry has been falling into lately, the kind that Lewis so gently mocks with his note that "science doesn't know for sure what killed the dinosaurs, but I don't get angry when they give their theories". Stephen Fry, please pick up the white courtesy phone and prepare to lay down while some doctor examines what's going on in your head.

The play moves along fairly well, though the segues between the various avenues of exploration can get a little thin at times. The authors of the play had worn out the discussion on one point and wanted to move onto another, but couldn't find an organic way to get there. Once or twice was forgivable, but it was a recurring problem throughout the work. The frantic action events in the play (the false alarm air raid alert, the insistence of Freud that Lewis pull out his prosthetic) also seem quite unnatural, and remind you that you are in a fictional world.

Still, the play is well crafted and moves along well, with the weighty subject matter never becoming too preachy one side or the other, and as promised early on by CS Lewis, Freud had to argue against Christianity being argued from a rationalist perspective, not being allowed to fall into the tropes Fry and his ilk are always so guilty of. There's a little too much of the "oh and then let me tell you something about MY life..." that was a problem in last year's Woodsworth vs Mackenzie King play as well. Not all of us have to tailor our philosophies around specific events in our lives -- even if Sigmund Freud wishes it to be true.

The only other negative that could be said about this play is, well, Freud himself. He's something of an overplayed trope of fiction and while he certainly makes for strong subject matter, there are other well known figures who could parlay with CS Lewis.

Regardless, it's an excellent play worth seeing, and being a Fringe Holdover this year even though the Fringe may be over, you can still go take in this work.