Sunday, October 28, 2012

With the Wondrous Mike Nussbaum, 'Freud's Last Session' Proves Worthy of Analysis -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Freud's Last Session
by Mark St. Germain
directed by Tyler Marchant
Mercury Theater, Chicago
Thru November 11

Mike Nussbaum is a Chicago treasure, even if his renown extends well beyond.

Now 88, Nussbaum has acted and directed in Chicago theaters for more than 50 years. I first saw him in a movie, 1987's House of Games by David Mamet, but over the past decade I have had the pleasure of seeing him work on stage several times.

And it truly is a pleasure. Nussbaum is far more than a beloved relic; he remains an outstanding actor, and an impressively active one at that.

Back in May of this year, I went to a play called After the Revolution at the Next Theatre in Evanston with the expectation that Nussbaum would be in it, only to learn that he had transferred to Freud's Last Session. While I was a bit disappointed then, Nussbaum's role in After the Revolution had been a relatively minor one. And 5-1/2 months later, Mike is still starring as Sigmund Freud in an 80-minute, 2-person play with 8 scheduled performances a week.

With Freud's Last Session's stalwart run at the Mercury Theater--though a good bit shorter than the show's 2-year Off-Broadway stint--slated to end on November 11, I made a point of seeing it and am glad that even at a Saturday matinee, I didn't get an understudy for Nussbaum, nor for Coburn Goss as C.S. Lewis.

Mark St. Germain's play imagines a meeting between Freud and Lewis at the doctor's London office in 1939, as Freud is ravaged by oral cancer (he would take his own life on Sept. 23 of that year). Lewis was a noted professor at the time and close friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, though had yet to write the books for which he is most famous: The Chronicles of Narnia -- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Screwtape Letters. So it's possible that such a meeting could really have taken place--and such has even been speculated--but with no proof that it did, St. Germain's script is largely conjecture.

It concerns itself primarily with questions of religion, not as one may expect, psychoanalysis nor literature. Freud was an avowed atheist, a view formerly shared by Lewis, who had become an ardent champion of Christianity eight years prior to the imagined "session" with Freud, when C.S. would've been 41 to Sigmund's 83.

The play, which notably takes place after Hitler had invaded Poland--with Freud already having emigrated from Vienna to London--effectively mixes impassioned (but never contemptuous) debate with a good amount of humor.

It is certainly possible that viewers who are considerably more learned than I about Freud and Lewis--I've never read anything written by either, except that within my Psychology 101 textbook--as well as more interested in questions of theology, will find more to acutely enjoy on a biographical, historical and/or spiritual level.

For while I certainly appreciated many of the questions the play asked among it's two esteemed characters, I can't say that the themes and specifics of Freud's Last Session are likely to much stick with me.

The work itself is worthwhile, and certainly could be with other actors--as proven by the New York run and reviews--but for me, the primary reason to see this play in Chicago at this time is Mike Nussbaum.

Though he does an excellent job of losing himself in Freud and is nicely complemented by Goss as a bookish yet resolute Lewis, those of us who have come to appreciate Nussbaum won't have a hard time recognizing his distinctive mannerisms, even in embodying someone so famous.

Without over analyzing it, I don't quite consider Freud's Last Session in itself a "must see," although it's certainly solid, even stellar. But anyone who admires the longstanding artistry of the legendary Nussbaum really should make a point of catching this show in its last few weeks at the Mercury.

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