2011-01-06 / Hap Erstein

“Freud” bristles with intelligence, first-rate performances

There is a saying that all you need to produce good theater is two planks and a passion. Perhaps, but all you need for a solid script are a couple of characters in opposition and some thought-provoking words.

That simple formula is well illustrated by Mark St. Germain’s two-character debate play, “Freud’s Last Session.” He takes down from the library shelf and from their pedestals Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and a staunch atheist, and C. S. Lewis, a convert to Christianity who would become a renowned religious philosopher as well as the author of such allegorical works as the “Chronicles of Narnia” series.

There is no tangible evidence that these towering figures ever met, but the possibility is posed by Dr. Armand Nicholi in his book, “The Question of God.”

That was what inspired St. Germain to bring them together onstage to hash out whether God is the invention of man or vice versa. In addition, in a free-wheeling 70 minutes, the two great minds discuss the value of sex, the nature of good and evil and the meaning of life. si

Dennis Creaghan, left, plays Freud and Chris Oden portrays author C.S. Lewis in the Dramaworks production of the play about the father of psychoanalysis. 
COURTESY PHOTO Dennis Creaghan, left, plays Freud and Chris Oden portrays author C.S. Lewis in the Dramaworks production of the play about the father of psychoanalysis. COURTESY PHOTO Those who require a complex plot should probably look elsewhere, but if you can appreciate some heady talk thatt spursa“ you on to consider your own answers to these major questions, then “Freud’s Last Session” is a seasonal present,p bristling with intelligence and humor, tailor-made for you.

It is a play that also fits the mission of Palm Beach Dramaworks succinctly, as its catch phrase, “Theater to think about” suggests. Few, if any, other theaters in South Florida would tackle such a script, which this West Palm Beach company helped to develop as it made its way to New York.

Artistic director William Hayes helms the assured production, a Southeastern premiere, by focusing on the words and moving his actors about the stage just enough to avoid the sense that the proceedings feel static. He is aided by a couple of first-rate actors who have been on the Dramaworks stage before — Dennis Creaghan (Freud), last seen here as the junkshop proprietor of “American Buffalo,” and Christopher Oden (Lewis), who played physicist Werner Heisenberg in “Copenhagen.”

St. Germain sets the play on a momentous day in September 1939, as Great Britain is drawn into World War II. From Freud’s London consulting rooms, to which Lewis has been summoned, they can hear transport planes flying overhead and the blare of air raid sirens. From that, they can project the death and destruction that lies ahead. As Freud notes with ironic satisfaction, though, he is likely to miss much of it, for he is in the finals stages of an oral cancer with has eroded the roof of his mouth. He talks with a clinical detachment of ending his life, which he will do just three weeks later.

Nevertheless, he debates as if his life depended on it, relishing one of the few joys left for him, having a spirited mental workout against a worthy opponent. For Lewis, being matched against Freud is an honor he does not take lightly, yet he verbally attacks the frail older man with respect and a touch of sadness.

Creaghan demonstrates why he is one of South Florida’s most versatile performers, disappearing completely behind Freud’s snowy beard and Viennese accent. Oden is less of a chameleon, but he brings the right natural qualities to Lewis and develops an apt combative chemistry with his acting partner.

In addition to selecting challenging material — for its company and for its audience — Dramaworks has earned a reputation for exemplary design work in its cramped quarters. Resident scenic designer Michael Amico again comes through with a richly detailed, period-perfect set, an iconic office centered around an analyst’s couch. Adding to the atmosphere of the drama just outside Freud’s door is the soundscape devised by Matt Corey.

“Freud’s Last Session” is a brief evening, but one densely packed with ideas that draw the audience in and holds it. This is a session that seems bound to be played out wherever theaters that value substance over empty entertainment can be found. ¦

in the know

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

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