Thursday, December 16, 2010

Theater feature: What-if meeting of minds inspired 'Freud' playwright

Chris Oden as C.S.‭ ‬Lewis and Dennis Creaghan
as Sigmund Freud,‭
‬in Freud’s Last Session
at Palm Beach Dramaworks.‭

(‬Photo by Alicia Donelan‭)

By Hap Erstein

A meeting between Sigmund Freud‭ ‬--‭ ‬the father of psychoanalysis and a staunch atheist‭ ‬--‭ ‬and C.S.‭ ‬Lewis,‭ ‬a convert to Christianity and author of the series of religious allegories,‭ ‬The Chronicles of Narnia.

There is no evidence that such a match-up ever took place,‭ ‬but it is the basis of Mark St.‭ ‬Germain’s what-if drama,‭ ‬Freud’s Last Session,‭ ‬opening Friday at West Palm Beach’s Palm Beach Dramaworks.

The pairing is not capricious,‭ ‬but based on the book‭ ‬The Question of God by Dr.‭ ‬Armand Nicholi,‭ ‬which St.‭ ‬Germain pored over a‭ ‬few years ago.‭ ‬As he explains,‭ ‬“In the last chapter,‭ ‬Dr.‭ ‬Nicholi makes the statement that there was a young Oxford don who did visit Freud in the last month of his life,‭” ‬and suggests that it would be intriguing to think that the visitor was Lewis,‭ ‬a man of such opposite views from Freud’s.

‭“‬I constantly read trying to find something interesting to write about,‭” ‬says St.‭ ‬Germain and when he got to the reference to Lewis,‭ “‬Bells went off.‭”

This is not the first time St.‭ ‬Germain has written a speculative drama about famous figures from the past.‭ ‬He is probably best known so far for‭ ‬Camping with Henry and Tom,‭ ‬a fictional tale of industrialist Henry Ford and inventor Thomas Edison,‭ ‬spending a weekend together out in the wilderness.

‭ “‬I guess I’m fascinated with history,‭ ‬I’m fascinated with the people who are larger-than-life,‭” ‬says St.‭ ‬Germain.‭ “‬It’s really interesting to spend time in their company.‭ ‬To try and put myself inside their heads and experience the world as they see it.‭”

When started to work on what became‭ ‬Freud’s Last Session,‭ ‬St.‭ ‬Germain considered himself fairly well versed in Freud and Lewis,‭ ‬but still he had to research them both more thoroughly.‭ “‬I had to find out more about them,‭ ‬about who they were,‭ ‬as opposed to what they said.‭ ‬A year and a half later,‭ ‬I was still reading.‭”

In the play,‭ ‬Freud and Lewis discuss and debate their attitudes on such subjects as religion,‭ ‬sex,‭ ‬the meaning of life and the existence of God.‭

The only question St.‭ ‬Germain begs off of is which of the characters he personally sides with on the God question.‭ “‬I always plead the Fifth on that,‭” ‬he says,‭ ‬concerned that theatergoers might perceive a bias from him if he divulged his own beliefs.‭

The play tried out last year at Barrington‭ (‬Mass.‭) ‬Stage,‭ ‬where St.‭ ‬Germain help post-show talkbacks with the audience,‭ ‬trying to gauge whether he got the balance right.‭ “‬And it was really interesting,‭ ‬because there was about a third of the audience that would come and congratulate you because Freud really won this argument,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬And then a third would say,‭ ‘‬Isn’t it a shame,‭ ‬but Lewis really trounced Freud.‭’ ‬I like that.‭”

Even before Barrington Stage,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬Palm Beach Dramaworks asked St.‭ ‬Germain to come to South Florida for a test reading of the script.‭ ““‬I was very happy to do that,‭ ‬because it was a chance to hear it,‭ ‬watch the audience and do some rewrites on it,‭” ‬he explains.‭ “‬The actors did a terrific job,‭ ‬I thought,‭ ‬and it was a good experience.‭”

So he was equally pleased to grant Dramaworks the rights to produce the show now,‭ ‬even though it is still running off-Broadway.‭ ‬Describing its evolution since that‭ ‬2009‭ ‬reading,‭ ‬St.‭ ‬Germain says,‭ “‬I think it’s a much stronger play.‭ ‬I think the arguments are developed more deeply and I think there’s more of the personalities of the men.‭”

The play opened off-Broadway in July with the Barrington Stage cast,‭ ‬after St.‭ ‬Germain considered,‭ ‬but ultimately rejected,‭ ‬recasting it with two box-office names and taking it to Broadway.‭

“I had been approached to do that,‭ ‬but I really felt that if you have a production you’re happy with,‭ ‬it was really crazy to try to do something else,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬You’re always taking a chance that it’s not going to come together in the same way.‭ ‬And funding is so much more difficult,‭ ‬you can wait for years to try to raise the money.‭”

Besides,‭ ‬he feels that off-Broadway‭ ‬--‭ ‬or regional theater‭ ‬--‭ ‬is a better fit for plays of ideas,‭ ‬where audiences go to listen and think.‭ “‬I think the Broadway audience is mostly lured these days by the spectacle,‭ ‬or the name performers within a play.‭”

Freud’s Last Session has been‭ ‬an Energizer bunny in New York,‭ ‬running a remarkable five months so far,‭ ‬In part,‭ ‬St.‭ ‬Germain believes,‭ ‬this is due to a renewed interest in spirituality in the nation and a hunger for the answers that Freud himself sought.‭ “‬I think these are eternal questions,‭ ‬but these are things that most of the time you don’t spend an evening thinking about.‭ ‬Most of don’t put two minutes thought into it a day.‭”

Still,‭ ‬he emphasizes,‭ ‬the play is‭ “‬about people,‭ ‬it’s not about debate itself.‭ ‬We have to feel that we’re in the room with people who aren’t simply icons.‭ ‬We have to get them down off the mantel and see them as people who have ideas.‭ ‬To see Freud,‭ ‬who is in the last stages of his life,‭ ‬and Lewis,‭ ‬whose career is just beginning,‭ ‬and just experience them.

Freud’s Last Session,‭ ‬says St.‭ ‬Germain,‭ ‬allows theatergoers‭ “‬to see the world through the eyes of two geniuses and then to look at their own lives and their own beliefs.‭”

FREUD’S LAST SESSION,‭ ‬Palm Beach Dramaworks,‭ ‬322‭ ‬Banyan Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬Feb.‭ ‬6.‭ ‬Tickets‭; ‬$47.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬514-4042.

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