Wednesday, October 22, 2014

North Coast Rep Theatre Triumphs with “Freud’s Last Session”

At last, a thinking person’s play about the vexing concepts and issues concerning the philosophy of science versus the philosophy of faith in today’s society. It wasn’t much of an issue, say, 5000 years ago. Then again, there wasn’t much of a scientific community or advocates to challenge the established order. But, today it’s a much different kettle of fish.
Bruce Turk and Michael Santo ~Images Aaron Rumley

Playwright Mark St. Germain has crafted “Freud’s Last Session” – brilliantly staged and directed by North Coast Rep Theatre artistic director David Ellenstein – in order to bring together, one afternoon in 1940, two of the 20th century’s most influential writers and thinkers in a head to head spirited discussion.

The story in short, is set in WW II England, during the Blitz of London and revolves around a fictional meeting between Sigmund Freud and novelist C.S. Lewis. Near the end of his life, Freud has one final visitor, C.S. Lewis, the writer and former atheist now a convert to Roman Catholicism who is soon to publish “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. The two men are a contrast in styles. Freud (wonderfully played by Michael Santo) is irascible, highly opinionated, prickly and suffering from painful mouth cancer. Lewis (an introspective, low key Bruce Turk) is a glass-half-full, sunny outlook sort of a fellow and is unflappable most of the time. The result of their meeting is a lively debate touching on love, religion, politics and life in its many iterations.

Of course, the most spirited exchanges between polar-opposite philosophies inevitably boil down to either politics or religion or both as in our modern-day society. Despite one’s position on the issues, it’s a stimulating, thought-provoking, amusing, and engaging evening of theatre. And it all takes place in about 85 minutes.

Director Ellenstein’s entertaining production has two extremely talented actors in Santo and Turk, plus an erudite, richly-textured, intelligent premise and script from playwright St. Germain with which to have fun, as well as to tantalize his sophisticated theatre audience. Freud relishes his exchanges with Lewis occasionally punctuating his comments with “thank God”, at the end of sentences, which always get a laugh from the engaged and savvy audience. When pressed by Lewis, Freud replies, “It’s an old habit I’ve been trying to overcome for years”. The genuine mutual respect the characters have for one another is apparent from the outset, and the fluidity of their performances have Ellenstein’s creative fingerprints all over them.

The format is an old one. Two famous characters come together to discuss and/or debate their philosophically held public and personal opinions. Its “fight-night” in the theatre, between two highly educated and refined gentlemen, but without the rancor or “the win-at-any-cost” street-fighter tactics that pass today for civilized discourse. Words have power and are meaningful in St. Germain’s and Ellenstein’s highly literate and entertaining production, and surprise of surprises, there isn’t one “f-bomb” hurled from the stage into the audience (emerging playwrights please take note. Buy a thesaurus and apply generously to your dialogue).

St. Germain, Ellenstein, Santo, and Turk, are the main reasons this splendid production resonates with the audience. However, a great deal of the success of North County Rep Theatre productions rests on the creative shoulders of its talented production staff led by Resident scenic designer Marty Burnett, who provides the actors in this production a pitch-perfect rendering of Sigmund Freud’s Vienna home before Freud and his daughter Anna escaped from Austria to England. Its mahogany walls and built-in bookshelves lined with stacks of books, tables, and Freud’s large desk set the tone from the moment the audience walk in. It’s my belief that a great set has a lot to do with inspiring a talented cast.

Lighting designer Matt Novotny’s atmospheric lighting plot provides just the right amount of light to see the wonderfully spot-on period-perfect costumes of Alina Bokovikova from Santo’s classic black pinstripe, to Turk’s wartime clothes-rationing look. Turk looks as if he just stepped away from his teaching position at London University to meet Freud; complete with brown shoes and socks with a gray jacket, blue sweater, a light green, slender knotted tie and the ubiquitous trench coat, in the event it rains (It usually did when I lived there). Props design and stage dressing by Benjamin Cole enhance the overall look and feel of this impressive production which is definitely a triumph for North Coast Rep.

“Freud’s Last Session” at North County Rep runs through November 9, 2014.