As Sigmund Freud famously once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. At other times, a cigar’s a prop in a play, as it is in Freud’s Last Session, the new production from the DIJO theater group and director Jerry Oshinsky at Carpinteria’s Plaza Playhouse. And a bitterly consequential prop, as the aging Freud, depicted here with grace and strength by Ed Giron, continues to enjoy his favorite oral pastime despite the fact that he is dying from cancer of the mouth. It’s the beginning of World War II, and the distinguished doctor and founder of psychoanalysis now lives in London, having barely escaped his beloved Vienna after the terror of the Anschluss in 1938. Playwright Mark St. Germain has taken some liberties with history in this imaginary meeting, granting Freud a meeting and a robust debate with the Oxford scholar, author, and devout Christian C. S. Lewis just weeks before he died.
It’s an interesting conceit, and St. Germain knows enough about theater to turn it into an effective play. Stark and Giron, who were wonderful together as David Frost and Richard Nixon, get another chance to ride the roller coaster of an ambivalent relationship, this one divided along religious/atheist lines. For those steeped in Freud’s magnificent prose and the profound wisdom of his immortal essays, the philosophy espoused here will inevitably appear shallow, but the fun is more in the exchange than in the ideas themselves. Lewis gives as good as he gets, and Stark, who just played the servant in Present Laughter at Santa Barbara City College, makes a convincing Oxford don. Ed Giron deserves great credit for realizing this complex portrait of a man in great pain who nevertheless lives without the comfort of an image of salvation. “The character of man does not evolve” Freud thunders at one point, and, as the planes rumble in the sky overhead and the two characters scramble to put on gas masks, it’s easy to see why he feels that way.