ROCHESTER — Belief vs. disbelief.
Faith vs. reason.
Life vs. death.
Good vs. evil.
Fantasy vs. reality.
Emotion vs. intellect.
Altruism vs. selfishness.
These are among numerous themes currently playing out on the Mainstage at Geva Theatre Center in "Freud’s Last Session," an imaginary meeting between the titular father of psychoanalysis and C.S. Lewis, a writer and Christian apologist best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia.
The grandson of an Anglican priest, Lewis (portrayed by Ron Menzel) had become an atheist as a teenager but returned to the faith in his early 30s. About a decade later, he arrives at Freud’s London study, expecting to be upbraided for a thinly veiled reference to Freud as a "vain, ignorant old man" in one of Lewis’ books.
At 83, dying of oral cancer and only weeks from taking his own life, Freud (portrayed by Kenneth Tigar) instead wants to know how Lewis, an intellectual who had once shared his world view, could come to adopt the "pathetic, obsessional neurosis" of religion.
By turns antagonistic, companionable, humorous and poignant, the two characters spend the morning of Sept. 3, 1939 — the day Great Britain entered World War II — sparring over God and the meaning of life, death, pain and suffering, each psychoanalyzing the other along the way.
"At the macro level, it’s a great explanation of what suffering is all about," according to Deacon Philip Yawman, one of two panelists for a post-show discussion on Oct. 24
"If we can resonate and have empathy with other people’s suffering, we become better people. The Christian perspective is that suffering has some merits. One doesn’t get to rise but by dying," he told the Catholic Courier.
Throughout their conversation, the two men are "in imminent danger of death," noted Deacon Yawman, a psychiatric social worker with The EAP and parish deacon at St. Catherine of Siena in Mendon.
Indeed, their meeting is punctuated by an air-raid siren; the sound of military planes overhead; breaking war news on the radio, including snippets of speeches by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and King George VI; and sudden, excruciating attacks caused by the prosthesis Freud must wear in his mouth after 30 cancer surgeries.
In addition to providing an edgy context for their discussion, the interruptions are catalysts for some of the play’s most telling moments.
In the first, an air-raid siren sends both men into a panic and triggers for Lewis a flashback to the grisly death of a comrade in World War I. Freud diffuses the situation with a funny story about Joseph Pujol, a crass French entertainer he had seen in the Moulin Rouge. "The defense of humor," he says, "is how we forget horror."
After the two men listen to Chamberlain announcing that Britain is again at war, Lewis asks why Freud keeps snapping off the radio as soon as the broadcast switches to music.
"Music mystifies me," Freud explains. "Something (in me) rebels at being moved by something without knowing why." Although Freud says he merely objects to being manipulated by music, Lewis asserts that Freud really objects to being moved, and is afraid to feel anything he cannot process intellectually.
And amid a particularly painful attack with the prosthesis Freud calls "the monster," the buttoned-down Lewis must reach into his antagonist’s mouth and wrench out the bloody device.
Between interruptions the two men debate the moral law, whether suicide can be justified, and why God — if he is acknowledged to exist — permits evil and suffering.
Neither persuades the other, and Lewis finally acknowledges "it was madness to think we could solve the greatest mystery of the world in a single morning."
"Only one thing is greater madness, not to think of it at all," Freud replies.
Although a scoreboard in the theater’s doorway — and an informal poll at the start of post-show discussions — invites playgoers to vote who won the debate, Deacon Yawman and fellow panelist Richard Dees, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Rochester, said they doubted the play changed the opinions of audience members. But that’s not what the play was about, Deacon Yawman said.
"The play is about conversion," he noted.
The content of the imagined conversation — drawn from the two men’s writings and inspired by the book The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love Sex and the Meaning of Life by Dr. Armand Nicholi — was pretty well-known by audience members in advance, he said. "But the process was very rich, pretty profound, with Lewis and Freud being different at the end than at the beginning because of their interaction."
The deacon noted that Lewis’ compassion forced him "to go beyond himself by getting very intimate with Freud" to assist him with the prosthesis.
"There’s something in the nature of suffering that draws out the best in you," the deacon said during the panel discussion.
"Lewis is portrayed as, and I think he was, a pretty uptight guy, so that’s a big deal," he told the Courier. "Then Freud listens to music at the end. It’s very touching."
Deacon Yawman noted that playwright Mark St. Germain set the action in a figurative foxhole — with Freud’s carefully appointed study serving merely as a distraction. In such an environment, it’s very hard to dismiss or demonize the other person, as frequently happens when we disagree with people, he said.
That was exactly the intent of Skip Greer, Geva’s director of education/artist in residence, who also directed the play.
"The reason I chose this play is that I am terrified of the world all lining up behind their beliefs and getting ready to attack the other side," Greer said after the play’s Oct. 24 show. He added that he hoped the play would be a way of bridging such divides and fostering civil discourse.
Yet neither Lewis nor Freud saw reason as a key driver of human behavior, Dees observed in an interview with the Courier. An atheist who was raised Methodist, he noted that "toleration hasn’t always been a part of religious traditions."
The author of a 2004 scholarly book titled Trust and Toleration, Dees said history indicates toleration is rarely learned by having reasoned discourses.
"Typically people learn toleration by killing people for years and years," he said.
Nevertheless, Dees said he saw the production "as a kind of hopeful play in the midst of a situation that wasn’t hopeful at all."
EDITOR’S NOTE: "Freud’s Last Session" continues at Geva through Nov. 11.