Smile Politely

Mingled with mourning

The triumphant feeling of liberation is mingled too strongly with mourning, for one had still very much loved the prison from which one has been released.

This passage was written by Sigmund Freud approximately a year before his death, concerning his relocating from Vienna to London after the Nazi occupation of Austria commenced. Prior to exiting his beloved country, both Freud and his daughter were interrogated, and many of his books were burned by the Gestapo, who then required Freud and his family to make a statement that they had not been mistreated by the officials. “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone,” was the psychoanalyst’s acerbic reply.

A habitual smoker, Freud developed cancer of the mouth and (though his daughter objected) eventually requested his physician’s assistance in euthanizing him with a lethal dose of morphine after the cancer recurred and was judged inoperable and incurable, and the pain became too great. Freud succumbed to the lethal overdose on September 23, 1939 as the world hovered on the brink of WWII.

As a young adult, I recall ministers in conservative Christian churches spreading the erroneous report that Freud’s “suicide” was an act of desperation and selfishness, disproving the benefit of his methods and psychology in general. They failed to mention his pain and suffering from a terminal disease and the rational pact he’d entered with his doctor about the ending of his life. I guess they felt propagandizing the faith was more essential than accuracy, and sins of omission are warranted when trying to stop a congregation from logical thought and the consideration of serious philosophical ideas. 

Those same ministers idolized the writings of C.S. Lewis, a decidedly more conservative presence who retreated from his faith-based upbringing as a young man only to embrace it passionately again as an adult later in life. He became the voice of intellectual faith through his multiple writings, a bridge between the unseen nature of faith and the insistent stability of science. His writings on Nazism were construed by some to be too emotionally distant and overly intellectual, thus leading some to believe he was sympathetic to their cause and others to argue that he was merely dissecting the cold nature of their inhuman acts as an ultimate example of the power of evil.

The Celebration Company at The Station Theatre’s final production this summer is Mark St. Germaine’s play of ideas, Freud’s Last Session, which depicts a fictitious encounter between the two men, wherein they discuss the topics of faith, sex, religion, and death, and their view of the Holocaust only weeks before Freud’s self-orchestrated death. Freud’s devout atheism and Lewis’ religious fervor make for a lively and, at times, combative exchange of ideas and philosophies of the serious questions one has at the end of life. The play had a successful run Off-Broadway in 2011 and also had respectable runs in Los Angeles and at various regional venues. 

The Station production, skillfully directed by Tom Mitchell, elegantly depicts this encounter with a lovely and surreal set by Julie Rundell and crisp lighting by Pasha Yu Yi Guo. The use of carefully chosen vintage furnishings, warm tapestries, and area rugs bring to life Freud’s office and provide a welcoming setting for the pair’s philosophical encounter. Mitchell’s Director’s Note extols the virtue of this piece, “in an entertainment age that experiences the slow disappearance of bookstores and thoughtful writing” and “movie theatres filled with robots battling zombies, and that revive sophomoric movies as an excuse for Broadway plays,” noting, “The idea of a drama that presents a discussion about the existence of God [may seem] quaint,” but is increasingly necessary in a world where moral ambiguity can be heightened by a steady diet of such pabulum. St. Germain’s astute play gives us an intelligent discussion of what gives life meaning in a moment in history that finds the world on the brink of the devastation of WWII.

Mitchell wisely sees this as an actors’ play and allows this pair of exceptional actors to dominate the space. And dominate it they do. Station veteran and a key driving force for the company, Gary Ambler shines as the weary and declining Sigmund Freud, a man whose intellect and thirst for rational debate strives to overcome the pain and suffering that threatens to silence him prematurely. The man’s genius, passion, and wit are on full display as Ambler navigates the tricky terrain of a dying man’s fight to overcome his failing body, while continuing his debate of intellectual issues with a respected peer.

As that peer, a talented member of the younger generation of The Celebration Company, Jesse Angelo provides a wonderful intellectual sparring partner for Ambler as he embodies C. S. Lewis with quiet intelligence and an ego that refuses to be silenced by an elder who clearly finds his logic faulty.

The two joke, critique one another, and bicker heatedly over the ideals that have shaped their lives and careers, and the result is a seventy-minute, one-act performance of not-to-be-missed theatre. Of note is the fact that the actors and director mounted this piece in a five-day rehearsal period due to geographic distance and scheduling complications. It’s a truly stunning evening of theatre. The audience loses themselves in these rich characters and is only jarred from their words by the unsettling sounds of air raid sirens or historic speeches and music coming from the vintage radio (courtesy of sound designer Mike Prosise).

The sounds of impending war are unsettling enough that I wondered how our current insulated and pampered culture would react to the real threat of such a war. What would we cling to in the face of such worldwide devastation? And would we have the strength to fight and endure as those before us did, or would we succumb to the stress and pressure of that constant threat and allow ourselves to be overcome?

Admittedly, this is a Valentine of a review and not because I am affiliated with the Station. It’s a Valentine because this is an important piece of theatre that makes you think about the ideals upon which we have built our culture and the way we currently choose to anesthetize ourselves from the questions that plague us all before our lives end. It is weighty stuff, handled with delicacy and a surprisingly consistent sense of humor by a talented production team following a marvelous script. It’s why the arts are important for our society, and I strongly encourage you to partake while this rare gem still shines on the Station’s intimate stage.

The play will end its run this week (on August 3, to be exact), so make reservations immediately if you plan to go. Call (217) 384-4000 or visit the Station website.

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Photos courtesy of Celine Broussard.

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