In Mark St. Germain’s play, “Freud’s Last Session,” now at the Mercury Theater, Sigmund Freud, the grand master of psychoanalysis is 83 years old and just weeks away from dying of oral cancer.
Mike Nussbaum, who has just assumed the role of Freud in this fiercely demanding two-character theatrical debate about the existence (or nonexistence) of God, is a hale and hearty, altogether remarkable man of 88.
The veteran Chicago actor (and early David Mamet muse) also happens to be having one of the busiest and most impressive seasons of his long career. It would be no exaggeration to call him a cultural treasure, but he would simply say, “playing Freud is one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced.”
Nussbaum, along with another Chicago actor, the excellent Coburn (“Coby”) Goss, 41, who has assumed the role of the Christian-minded writer C.S. Lewis, have just replaced the show’s original New York cast, which opened the show here in March.
To play Freud, Nussbaum had to make an early exit from his latest role as a well-to-do liberal and former communist sympathizer in Amy Herzog’s play, “After the Revolution,” at Next Theatre. He had taken on that role just on the heels of his matchless portrayal of a dapper Flo Ziegfeld-like Broadway producer (complete with leggy chorus girl on his arm), in the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.”
“The most difficult thing about doing ‘Freud’ was that Coby [soon to be seen in the film “Man of Steel”] and I had so little rehearsal time – only three part-time weeks, plus one 10-hour day with the director [Tyler Marchant] just before we opened,” Nussbaum said. “
It was Nussbaum’s wife, Julie Brudlos-Nussbaum, who first heard about the play, and alerted BJ Jones of Northlight Theatre to her husband’s interest in it. That never worked out, but then Nussbaum’s agent called and the actor met Marchant and “even did a little reading for him.”
“There are a lot of words and a lot of physical activity in this play,” said Nussbaum, who moves with the agility of a mountain goat.
“I put a lot of effort into memorizing the script, starting very early and running the lines with my wife. But that is good for me. As for the rest, I’m just genetically lucky,” he said. “And I walk a lot, and have a workout regimen of push-ups, sit-ups and stretches I do at home for an hour every other day.”
Philosophically Nussbaum is at one with the Jewish-born, atheistic, science-is-all Freud, noting: “I am in complete agreement with him and have never denied it.”
“Mike exemplifies everything I love about Chicago acting – just getting to the basics of talking and listening, and pulling everything from the script,” said Goss, whose own 94-year-old grandfather still preaches back home in Arkansas.
“I also love hearing him talk about why he stayed in Chicago even when he had other offers – about how you can be a real person here and have a family,” he said. (Goss is married to actress Natasha Lowe and is the father of a 7-year-old son.)
“Without question, my first impression of Mike was his generosity of spirit and his dedication to the craft,” Marchant said.
“What struck me immediately about his work was his deep need to live his personal truth within the character of Freud; all else could fall away,” Marchant said. That specificity and discipline is incredibly exciting for a director to work with.”