Playwright: Mark St. Germain. At: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-325-1700. www.mercurytheaterchicago.com; $45-55 ($22 w/ student ID). Runs through: June 3
If your answer to the age-old party conversation starter "Which three historical figures would you invite to dinner?" includes Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, then you're in luckif not a bit theologically bewildered.
Freud's Last Session, an off-Broadway smash set to open on a global scale throughout the next year, makes its Midwest debut at the Mercury Theater, original cast in tow, and by cast that of course means all two of them. Martin Rayner plays an ailing octogenarian Freud and Glenview native Mark H. Dold assumes the part of Lewis prior to writing his most famous works, like The Chronicles of Narnia.
Mark St. Germain's play runs with an idea proposed in a book by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., who ponders the possibility of whether Freud and Lewis met after Freud immigrated to England and not long before he took his life during his long battle with oral cancer. The very prospect is enough to incite a curious itch in the mind of any intellectual, not unlike the way rock-'n-roll nostalgists have kept the seats of the Apollo Theater full throughout the run of Million Dollar Quartet.
As one would imagine, wits and philosophies clash in this historical imagining, which serves up the existence of God as its main course, with Freud the devout atheist and Lewis the self-converted Christian. Each makes powerful arguments only to have the other convincingly turn it on its head. In the end, the two characters on stage are not the only ones forced to confront their own views and beliefs.
Having performed this play for nearly two years and more than 700 performances, actors Mark H. Dold and Martin Rayner have an impressive rapport. They offer complete character portraits, depictions that not only capture these great men as minds and learned theorizers, but also as human beings who are by no means impervious to having their own thoughts and ideas used against them, and in psychoanalytic ways no less.
Dold gives Lewis a very human nervousness one would think inherent in meeting (let along going toe-to-toe with) a venerated genius, while Rayner implodes the Freud stereotype by presenting a Freud we can relate to, one with a sense of humor; this is in addition to embodying the sense of self-assuredness and pride for which the scientist is known.
With two full-bodied characters, the play unfolds as more than a game of wits or an exhibition for theological debate. The background of England entering World War II also adds some crucial context that anchors down what could have snowballed into an overly abstract match of ideological ping-pong. It certainly meets the requirement of an intellectual's giddy fantasy, but its true success is showcasing these men's hearts as well as their minds, even despite the story's obvious limitations in terms of conflict.
Intimate, witty and thought-provoking, Freud's Last Session should have Chicagoans lining up for a turn on the proverbial couch, perhaps even beyond the June 3 closing.