Most believer-versus-atheist arguments go like this: Both combatants make an equal number of points, each of which appears to be equally valid. The combatants outrage each other. They stump each other. At some point, the believer makes an appeal to something called "faith" or "grace" and smiles dreamily, hinting at the apprehension of wisdom too profound to articulate. The atheist looks on, longingly, even jealously.
Just once, I would like someone to win one of these arguments. That doesn't quite happen in Freud's Last Session, though it's close. Sigmund Freud (played by the infinitely versatile Dennis Creaghan) was, by a significant measure, the intellectual superior of C.S. Lewis (Chris Oden), with whom the fictionalized last session takes place. Even dying of cancer, Freud delivers the younger man a rhetorical near-smiting, and he does it righteously.
Lewis, best-known for his acclaimed children's books about witches, wardrobes, and the Lion of Judah, was a new convert to Christianity in the year of Freud's death in 1939. In the play, Freud has requested Lewis' presence because he's heard of his conversion to Christianity after a life of skepticism, and Freud wants to know how it happened.
In the play, Lewis explains that the gospels are shoddily written; ergo, they must not be myth-making forgeries but genuine histories. Jesus claims to be God incarnate and capable of forgiving sins — a claim very different from those made by every other great spiritual leader and so apparently absurd that it must come from a crazy man. But Jesus does not appear to be crazy. Ergo, he is God.
If I were Freud, I'd tell Lewis to stop rationalizing what is supposed to be an article of faith. Sticking to the script, Creaghan looks as though he'd like to — his disappointment with Lewis is palpable on the stage, even if it's not so easily locatable in the script. But his contempt, evident on both page and stage, is impressive: He is icy, and though he is enthralled by the exotic humanity parading itself before him, he is ultimately above it all. His eyes evince no trust, and his voice, which at the beginning of the play alternates between jocularity and crotchetiness, quickly takes on the studiedly compassionate tones of a psychoanalyst teasing out a neurosis. Lewis, invited here as an equal, becomes a specimen. It is only a matter of time before he ends up on the couch.
This is all a question of performance. Creaghan, under the impressive direction of William Hayes, spends most of the play subverting the script's imagined parity between the two men. So does Oden, who makes Lewis seem flaky, even vaguely cowardly: He has the neophyte's puppyish enthusiasm for evangelism, but his voice quivers, and half the time he looks scared out of his wits. He has the language of his convictions but no commensurate courage. We know he is a veteran of the First World War; Oden's performance suggests he'd feel more comfortable in a foxhole than arguing with Sigmund Freud.
But argue he does. "Choosing to disbelieve," he explains, "is even greater evidence for God's existence." Not convinced? Neither is Freud, who points out that he doesn't believe in unicorns either. That's not at all the same thing, Lewis says — because we do not crave God. Human craving, insists Lewis, inevitably meets reality. We crave food; food exists. We crave beauty; sunsets exist. We crave nurturing and love; parents and friends exist. Therefore, God exists.
If that sounds like projection, that's because it is. Lewis very badly wanted to believe, and he spent the latter half of his life cleaving to any semiplausible reason to do so. One can hardly blame him, for he lived in troubled times. Though nobody mentions it, we are led to believe that this play takes place on September 3, 1939. In Freud's London study — beautifully re-created by Mike Amico, full of little statuary and a thousand books; all the lovely accumulated detritus of a long, rich life of the mind — a radio occasionally interrupts the conversation. Over the radio, we hear Neville Chamberlain declare war on Germany; a little later, King George VI echoes Abraham Lincoln: "We can only do the right as we see the right and reverently commit our cause to God." It is a sentiment Lewis shares and Freud does not. Yet when the air-raid sirens sound, both run for cover — Freud because he believes in one life only, Lewis because he's not quite ready to settle his argument once and for all.