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Originally published March 29, 2012 at 1:03 PM | Page modified March 29, 2012 at 2:18 PM

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Theater review

It's atheist vs. believer in Taproot's 'Freud's Last Session'

Mark St. Germain's "Freud's Last Session" gets an imperfect airing at Taproot Theatre in Seattle. Through April 21.

Seattle Times theater critic

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

'Freud's Last Session'

By Mark St. Germain. Through April 21, Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle; $29-$37 (206-781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org).
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THEATER REVIEW |

It is clear where Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychiatry, stood on religion. "Demons do not exist any more than gods do," he wrote, "being only the products of the psychic activity of man."

And C.S. Lewis left little doubt about his own view of the subject: "A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word 'darkness' on the walls of his cell."

Based on the best-selling book "The Question of God," the hit Off Broadway play "Freud's Last Session" by Mark St. Germain sets up an imaginary sparring match between two expansive 20th-century intellects.

It's unlikely you'll be converted to either position in this engaging theatrical discourse, now in its Seattle premiere in an imperfect airing at Taproot Theatre.

But how stimulating to hear the two renowned personages justify their positions on faith vs. reason, myth vs. truth in a freewheeling, witty and — yes — civil exchange.

It is 1939, the fateful day Great Britain declares war on Nazi Germany. Staunch atheist and Jewish refugee Freud (played by Nolan Palmer), is in his 80s, sharp-minded but entering the terminal stage of throat cancer.

He warily welcomes into his home office Lewis (Matt Shimkus), an Oxford don and writer in his 30s, and a born-again Christian eager to meet him.

"There is a God, and a man doesn't have to be an imbecile to believe in him," asserts Lewis, in the ensuing discussion. Freud counters by dismissing religion as "a search for a father figure," and declares, "I have no fear of death, and no patience with propaganda."

The klatch occurs in the midst of air-raid scares and Freud's serious coughing fits. Mortality is much in the air, coloring exchanges that cannily reveal the backgrounds of both men, as well as the ominous historical moment.

And there are many flashes of humor — cuttingly sarcastic and self-effacing.

Like a bracing violin duet, "Freud's Last Session" needs to be well-modulated and balanced in its execution.

In Scott Nolte's staging, Palmer does a fine job of physically evoking Freud. But he often resorts to bombast, undermining the complexities of Freud's thinking and his temperament.

Shimkus also needs more variation, as well as more gravitas. His Lewis is too callow and breezy to make it a fair fight.

What is picture-perfect is Mark Lund's detailed mini-re-creation of Freud's office — the real thing is now a London museum, complete with Freud's vast collection of Greek, Asian and African antiquities, and naturally, his couch.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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