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Freud-Lewis dialogue is compelling theater

Mark H. Dold (left)  MartRayner reprise their roles 'Freud's Last Session' Mercury Theater.

Mark H. Dold (left) and Martin Rayner reprise their roles in "Freud's Last Session," at the Mercury Theater.

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‘freud’s last session’

♦ In previews; opens March 28 and runs through June 3

♦ Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport

♦ Tickets, $22-$55

♦ (773) 325-1700;

Updated: March 21, 2012 5:10PM

In the final analysis, pretty much everyone can identify the man in the stereotype: Round spectacles, neatly trimmed beard, cigar at the ready and a voice with a German accent making probing inquiries as to your relationship with your mother. We are, of course, talking about uber-psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. And while there’s no denying his seminal contributions to the field of mental health, the good doctor hardly seems like the sort of character around which to base the sort of show that entails a waiting list at the box office.

As the author of “Freud’s Last Session,” opening March 21 at the Mercury Theatre, playwright Mark St. Germain didn’t need to be a mind reader to figure that out. “When I first tried to get this show produced in New York, I was told it didn’t have a chance. Why would anyone pay to see two guys talking about God when they could go see ‘Spider Man’?,” he recalls.

That was then. Over the past two years, “Freud’s Last Session” has played nearly 800 off-Broadway performances in New York’s Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. The 80-minute, two-hander wherein Freud and novelist/poet C. S. Lewis battle it out over the existence of God is now on the 2012 season schedule for theaters in London, Tokyo, Stockholm and Madrid, among others. And in a sure-fire indicator of pop-culture popularity, “Freud’s Last Session” was featured in a question last year on “Jeopardy.”

For the Chicago premiere, original cast members Martin Rayner and Glenview native Mark H. Dold will reprise their critically acclaimed performances as Freud and Lewis, respectively.

Set on the eve of Great Britain’s entry into World War II and several weeks before Freud’s suicide on Sept. 23, 1939, the drama is just as St. Germain describes: An argument over the existence (or non-existence) of God. Lewis, a passionately devout Christian who came to believe after years as an atheist, is the young literary gun on the rise, a decade before publishing the first of his blockbuster Chronicles of Narnia saga. Freud is the elder statesmen about to make his final exit and an intractable. The two may or may not have met in real life, but St. Germain’s exploration of philosophical fireworks between opposites is as visceral and as noisily combative as the air raid sirens punctuating their arguments.

Director Tyler Marchant believes “Freud’s Last Session” feeds a hunger audiences have for theater that sets the brain churning. “It hits a chord with people because it touches them both emotionally and intellectually. I think people crave that — to have a serious night of theater and yet have fun.”

He’s not the only one singing Freud’s praises.

“Dr. Ruth is a groupie,” says Dold, “She’s seen it around five times. She even led a discussion after one show.”

For Dold, the piece hearkens back to the Off-Loop storefronts he frequented in the late 1970s.

“The show reminds me of the things I used to see in Chicago when I was a kid,” the 1982 Glenbrook South grad said, “This was before you could fly a helicopter across a stage or send a chandelier crashing down on the audience. You had to rely solely on character and circumstance.”

The circumstances of “Freud’s Last Session” may sound static — two guys talking in a room — but St. Germain has embedded the setting with a specificity that provides a harrowing historical context and sends the dramatic stakes soaring.

Freud ended a long and excruciatingly painful battle with oral cancer by overdosing on morphine less than three weeks after Great Britain entered World War II. As Freud and Lewis spar over the existence of God, the specter of personal tragedy and global atrocity take the discussion from the realms of the theoretical and put it squarely in the urgency of imperiled, everyday life.

“This isn’t just a conversation between two men. There are implications to the choices everyone makes in this debate. The fact that war is being declared and people are dying shows you that the outside world will encroach on even the most personal and private beliefs,” says Marchant.

“It’s specific, but it’s also universal,” Dold says, “Everyone has a belief system; everyone comes to the show with a point of view. And these two men will really test your point of view.”

Catey Sullivan is a local free-lance writer.

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