"Freud's Last Session," which Arizona Theatre Company opens in previews Saturday, isn't so much about the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. It is more about God. Or, to be more precise, the existence of God.
"It is a very entertaining play. There is a lot of humor in it," said the playwright, Mark St. Germain. "It really isn't heavy. There is conflict and drama. German bombers are flying overhead."
St. Germain sets the play in Freud's book-lined study in 1939 London on the day Britain and France declare war on Germany. Freud, the devout Jewish atheist, had fled his native Vienna just the year before.
No one knew what would happen next, although Freud knew he was dying of cancer. Nonetheless, in those tense times, the 83-year-old navigator of the subconscious invited the equally brilliant 41-year-old Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis to his study.
It would be a dozen years before Lewis published "The Chronicles of Narnia."
Freud wanted to understand how someone as intelligent as Lewis, a former atheist, could become a devout Christian.
That is the set-up for "Freud's Last Session," a play that was suggested by Armand M. Nicoli's 2002 book "The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life."
Nicoli created an imagined conversation because the two men never actually met. But St. Germain thinks they might have, as the book notes that Freud did meet with an "anonymous acolyte" in the summer of 1939.
Some 2 1/2 years and tons of research after discovering "The Question of God," the play was finished. It contains no lines from the book. The playwright has imagined all the dialogue by placing himself alternately in the minds of Freud and Lewis.
In the ATC production, directed by associate artistic director Stephen Wrentmore, the role of Freud is played by J. Michael Flynn. His rich career in regional theater extends from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Seattle Repertory Theatre to the Pittsburgh Public Theatre and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Cast as Lewis is Benjamin Evett, who appeared in last season's ATC production of "God of Carnage." His resume includes international theater appearances in Venice, Paris and Moscow, founding the Actors' Shakespeare Project in Boston and 10 years in the resident company of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
"Freud's Last Session" had a modest world premier in summer 2010 at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at New York's Upper West Side YMCA. The New York Times described it as "a profound and deeply touching play about two men who boldly addressed the greatest questions of all time."
"I thought it would probably run a couple of weeks," St. Germain remembers. "I was absolutely shocked when they kept renewing it. Then a year later it moved to a midtown theater and kept going."
A successful run followed in Chicago and a production in Los Angeles recently opened. There is also talk of doing a film adaptation.
As for that debate about the existence of God, the play doesn't pick a winner.
"I definitely didn't want to take sides," said the playwright. "There are elements of both Freud and Lewis in my personal beliefs. When I place myself in the head of each of them, I always feel like that one is right.
"It seems that people who go in feeling predisposed to Freud come out believing Freud won. And the same with Lewis. Those who are in the middle are often inspired to continue talking about the subject matter."
IF YOU GO
• What: Arizona Theatre Company's production of "Freud's Last Session."
• Playwright: Mark St. Germain.
• Director: Stephen Wrentmore.
• When: Previews are 8 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-next Thursday. Opening is 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25. Continues through Feb. 9.
• Where: Temple of Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
• Tickets: $32-$89, with discounts available. Half-price rush tickets, when available, an hour before curtain; pay what you can Tuesday; student prices are $10 for all performances.
• Details/reservations: 622-2823, www.arizonatheatre.org
• Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
• Cast: J. Michael Flynn, Benjamin Evett.
Chuck Graham is a Tucson-based freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org