From the tough sell department, theatrical division: Trying to convince potential investors and audiences alike that watching an imagined 80-minute conversation (no intermission here, folks!), primarily about God and belief, between Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. One set, no other actors, just two white guys sitting around talking.
“I was told by two different producers that there was no way this would run for more than two weeks,” recalls Mark St. Germain, the playwright of Freud’s Last Session, which opens at the Arden Theatre Oct. 25. He remembers the general sentiment being along the lines of, “Why in the world would anybody go to see a ‘talking head’ play when they can go see Anything Goes?”
Why, indeed. Following its premiere at Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage Company in 2009 (“We had about two and a half weeks to mount it, and we were just hoping that the actors would remember their lines,” St. Germain says), the play enjoyed a two-year run off-Broadway and is currently in different stages of production in Chicago, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, to name a few.
St. Germain has a history — and a successful track record — of writing highly literate and historically accurate plays, including the award-winning Camping with Henry and Tom, an imagined retelling of an actual trip taken by Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and President Warren G. Harding; and Forgiving Typhoid Mary, which dramatizes the internment of the infamous disease-carrier.
Although Freud, the Jewish atheist father of psychoanalysis, and C.S. Lewis, one of the 20th century’s most prominent former atheists-turned-Christian apologist, never met in real life, St. Germain did have source material for the play: The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, a book by Armand M. Nicolai, Jr., who has been teaching a course at Harvard on that very question for over a quarter century. Nicolai’s book was also the inspiration for a PBS television series of the same name.
More precisely, he had a source sentence. In the last chapter, the playwright says, Nicolai alludes to a relatively unknown professor at Oxford University who paid a call to Freud’s London residence. “The sentence was something like, ‘There was a young Oxford don who visited Freud shortly before his death, but no one knows who it was.’ And I thought that was just a great supposition for a play.”
The play is set in Freud’s home in London on Sept. 2, 1939, the day before England enters World War II. Freud, who had escaped from the Nazis in Austria in June of the previous year, is in tremendous pain as a result of a recurrence of oral cancer that necessitated surgery that leaves him in constant, debilitating pain and just weeks from death. Lewis is decades younger and at the beginning of his upward trajectory.
Despite the difference in their health and age the debate between the two is no mismatch. Perhaps part of Freud’s performance is due to his home-field advantage — thanks to his extensive network of friends and admirers, he was able to secure safe passage not only for most of his immediate and extended family, but also for his extensive collection of books and antiquities, most of which can still be seen today as he left them upon his death on Sept. 23, 1939.
To have such a publicly accessible historical record was both a boon and a burden for David P. Gordon, the longtime set designer for the Arden. On the one hand, he was able to draw from architectural drawings, item catalogues and Freud’s actual study itself, where the play is set. But, as Gordon points out, to truly create the feel of the real setting of an imaginary conversation requires a lot of sources. “One of the challenges was that he was an inveterate collector of ancient Greek, Egyptian and Chinese artifacts,” Gordon explains. “They all came with him from Vienna when he fled the Nazis.”
To maintain the verisimilitude of the script, Gordon and director Ian Merrill Peakes insisted on, as Gordon puts it, “no theatrical trickery of perspective or anything that strays from reality.” To that end, the set even has a ceiling, something rarely seen in theater.
Peakes, who acted in one of the very first productions of Freud’s Last Session, was under no illusions about the play.
“It’s a hard pick,” he says. “It’s two men talking a lot, but it’s great fun. It’s a really good debate — and a really funny one — between two of the great minds of the 20th century. And it’s not just a debate about God, but God is the central theme. It gets people thinking and laughing.”
And talking. One of the most notable aspects of the play is what happens after the final curtain. In addition to the innumerable conversations that take place between audience members leaving the show, there are frequently “talkbacks” that are held at the theater itself, with both audience and cast participating. Peakes emphasizes that the Arden will continue this tradition.
St. Germain’s view is that the talkbacks are a necessary catharsis for an audience that has consciously sought out an atypical entertainment experience and has been immersed in the back and forth between Freud and Lewis.
The fact that “it’s very different is what brought people to it,” he says. “People don’t think of the issues in this play unless something happens to them, or they re-examine their life — what they feel about faith, God, love, death — and all of a sudden, they’re in the middle of this conversation between two brilliant men. It provokes a lot of conversation.”
Freud’s Last Session opens on Oct. 25 and runs through Dec. 23. For more information, go to www.ardentheatre.org  or call 215-922-1122.