This past week I sat in on a rehearsal of Tidewater Stage’s upcoming production of Freud’s Last Session at Regent University. It was my first time viewing a show by Tidewater Stage – which Producing Artistic Director Eric Harrell describes as the best kept secret in Hampton Roads – or for that matter at the affiliated Regent University.
This being my first encounter with either (aside from having borrowed some props from time to time), I asked Mr. Harrell to explain to me what Tidewater Stage is all about. He told me that Tidewater Stage is a professional company in residence at Regent that also functions as an appendage of the university’s graduate program in theatre. Their productions are “a mix of graduate students, undergrads, local artists, faculty and staff, and professional artists who we bring in from other markets. Our goal is to draw from those different pools and bring them all together,” he explains.
“We use local talent when we can, and it’s good for us to be able to bring in professional artists for our students to get to work with them. It’s a model that works well. Our shows are small, but the quality is deep.”
No kidding. The first thing that struck me as I entered the space was the quality of the lavishly decorated set, which rivals anything one might see at VA Stage Company or VA Opera. In Regent’s intimate studio theatre space, however, you can get a much closer look at the painstaking details that you might miss at most other venues. The other technical elements of the show – lights, sound, etc. – are all very impressive. (None moreso than a prosthetic palette that appears from out of Frued’s mouth late in the proceedings. I had to go off record to get them to explain to me just how it was done, but rest assured, you prop monkeys and SFX junkies out there will have a difficult time discerning whence the item is actually produced.)
Freud’s Last Session, first performed at Barrington Stage Company in 2009, details a hypothetical meeting between Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, and the great Christian philosopher and writer C.S. Lewis.
But anyway, I think I’ve buried the lead deep enough. I had been meaning to get around to covering Tidewater Stage and Regent theatre in general, and the way in which Mr. Harrell enticed me to take time out of one of the busiest weeks of my year and get around to it now was by mentioning to me that the title role in Freud’s Last Session is to be played by none other than VA Stage Co’s emeritus Artistic Director Chris Hanna. I’ve been acquainted with Mr. Hanna for over ten years – he was my boss for seven of them – and I’ve only ever known him as a director. I asked him just how long his hiatus from the limelight has been.
“Since I was an undergrad,” he said. “Over forty years. I graduated from college and decided I was going to be a director. And what I was told about directing very early on was the best way to make it fast as a director is to not do anything else. So at age 21 I moved to New York and I was like I’m a director! And it never meant that I would never act again, but the further on you go the less likely it becomes. It never even occurred to me to act until Eric got in touch with me. And my first knee-jerk reaction was no way, but then I thought why not? And it’s been a great experience to do that again.”
Appearing as Lewis is professional actor and current Regent MFA student John Forkner. I asked him for the Cliff’s notes version of his career to date. “I got my BFA from Baylor University 2002, moved to Dallas and worked pretty regularly with their Shakespeare festival and various other theatres, worked my way up the middle of Texas and really didn’t want to go to Oklahoma, so I bypassed that and went straight to NYC. I was there for six years, did a lot of off and off-off Broadway-type stuff. Lots of Shakespeare – American Globe Theatre and the Judith Shakespeare Company.”
He added: “One other thing I never talk about is that I originated the role of Max in the cult hit musical Sex Drugs and Ukuleles. That doesn’t make my Regent bio.”
I told him let’s put a pin in that idea because at some point I may want, sight unseen, to produce that show. (…With Skye Zentz as my star. She can have the ukuleles, we’ll split the sex 50/50, the rest will be mine.) “But anyway,” said Forkner, pulling me back on topic, “I’d been hopping back and forth between NY and Dallas/Fort Worth doing shows, and eventually I decided I needed to take the plunge and get my MFA.” I asked what drew him to Regent. “It reminded me a lot of Baylor,” he said. “After seeing some of the other schools that I could have gone to I came to Regent and thought ‘I could spend three years here’. The facilities are really nice.” I very much agree. Say what you want about Pat Robertson (in the comments… of someone else’s article), but the dude laid out some serious cash for his theatre department.
I have to admit I was skeptical going in, based on Regent’s reputation amongst the rabid liberals (myself included) with whom the local theatre scene is disproportionately populated. Over the years, however, I have taken the impression that Regent’s theatre department seems to be well-funded, well-staffed, and granted a surprising degree of artistic latitude. What I saw this past week would seem to confirm that.
Freud and Lewis are both giant personalities, practically archetypes of opposing philosophies, and the way the play puts them together results in some fascinating and compelling excogitation. It’s also quite timely. The play takes place in the early 1940’s, when Lewis is just beginning to rise to prominence while Freud is nearing the end of his life and career. He is now living in London, having fled the Nazis in his native Austria. Freud and Lewis’s explorations of each other’s beliefs are frequently interrupted by news bulletins concerning Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the outset of World War II. The Blitz is just about to begin, and their conversation hums with an undercurrent of percolating anxiety. After the rehearsal I sat down with Tidewater Stage’s Producing Artistic Director Harrell, as well as director Marianne Savell and the cast, and asked without any tact whatsoever if I had just witnessed a societal comment being made, at a Christian university no less.
“There seems to be so much polarity and so much divisiveness in our culture,” said Harrell. “This play is a humbling and effective example of how people can have a dialogue that ultimately is productive despite the fact that they can be on such different sides of any issue.”
“To me this play is full of empathy,” said director Savell, “and we have to find empathy for each other, or we’re not going to make it. It’s the whole idea of values. If your values are different than my values, I might want to not associate with you. I feel the big danger is just saying someone’s a fool. And you want to, but that’s dangerous. And I think these guys in this play give us a good example of how to deal with someone – even though they do get personal and it gets painful – they don’t leave the room.”
Timely indeed, considering all the threats to unfriend I’ve seen flying around the interwebs recently. I have some pretty strongly held opinions myself, and this conversation put me in mind of a podcast I listened to recently, in which one of the panelists asserted that entertainment media – the chief offender being Aaron Sorkin – has trained my generation in particular to argue in an especially unproductive manner: whoever has the sickest burn wins, but no one comes away from the encounter with any better of an understanding of the opposing point of view. I’ve been guilty of this many times myself.
“The societal conversation happens on two levels,” said Hanna. “One is that neither one of us is right or wrong – we can just have this free and open conversation. And then there is another level at which [we say] is there a moral law finally or is it all just chaos? And I think this is a time when we as a society need to pull together and decide yes there is moral law.”
But of what exactly does that moral law consist, and how do we make that determination? I guess the first thing that needs to happen is an honest, open, and considerate discussion among people of opposing viewpoints. There are some very good pointers on how this might be accomplished nestled into Freud’s Last Session, courtesy of Tidewater Stage.
Freud’s Last Session runs July 29 thru Aug 7, Fridays 7:30 pm, Saturdays 2:30 and 7:30, Sundays 2:30, at Regent University. Tix: $23 regular, $20 Student, Senior, Military. Talk-backs will follow the second Friday and both Saturday performances. Find out more here.