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Theatre in Review: Shadowlands (Fellowship for Performing Arts/Theatre Row)

Robin Abramson, Daniel Gerroll. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

It's funny how real life can intrude into a play. Shadowlands begins with C.S. Lewis, novelist and Christian apologist, giving one of his theological talks. The theme is love, pain, and suffering, and how they can exist in a world created and presided over by a benevolent God. Lewis is quick to add that the pain he is referring to is of the catastrophic sort. By way of example, he says, "Last night, as I'm sure you know, a number 1 bus drove into a column of young Royal Marine cadets, and killed twenty-three of them. They were ten-year-old boys, marching and singing on their way to a boxing match." At the performance I attended, a chilling silence suddenly pervaded the room. I should add that it was October 31, the same day that Sayfullo Saipov drove a truck into a crowd in Lower Manhattan, killing eight people, most of them tourists on holiday. Let's just say that the question posed by Lewis suddenly didn't seem quite so abstract.

And, indeed, Shadowlands is about what happens when flesh-and-blood love -- happiness necessarily intertwined with chaos and suffering -- enters the life of a man who has always been defined in strictly spiritual terms. Lewis arrived at his Christianity only after years of searching and extensive consideration, but the man who addresses us has long been curled up inside his religious convictions like a cat nestled between two plump pillows. His faith may initially have been hard-won, but nothing has subsequently tested it. He presents his provocative argument, that pain is "God's megaphone to rouse a dead world," adding that, "through suffering, we release our hold on the toys of this world, and know our good lies in another world." It's a sly, original premise, and, in Daniel Gerroll's performance, you can practically hear Lewis purring with self-satisfaction as he delivers it.

The next few scenes lay out in detail the cosseted existence Lewis has enjoyed for so long. In his late fifties -- the play begins around 1955 -- he lives in Oxford with his brother, Warnie, a retired major in the British Army. A literary celebrity, both for his series of Narnia novels and the nonfiction works designed to popularize religious concepts, Lewis dwells happily in an all-male society of university dons and clerics, chattering the night away with them in pubs and at drinks parties. He seems thoroughly content, although, as any reader of his books could tell him, he is riding for a terrible fall.

Surely, he can't expect the seismic change that will be caused by the decision to meet with one of his correspondents, Joy Davidman, "the Jewish Communist Christian American." A recent convert, unhappily married with a young son, Joy arranges to meet Lewis for tea while on a visit to England. An acquaintanceship is struck up: Lewis is fascinated by her unusual spiritual path, not to mention her astonishingly direct manner. In a discussion about art, she brings him up short, saying, "That's one of your favorite tricks, Mr. Lewis. You redescribe your opponent's argument with a dismissive image, and you think you've dismissed the argument." He doesn't fully know it, but this silver-tongued writer has met his match.

Much of the first act is spent tracking how Lewis, unable to recognize or act on his feelings, stumbles into love. At a Christmas dinner in Oxford, Joy stuns Lewis' group when, patronized by one of them, she retorts, "As you know, I'm an American and different cultures have different modes of discourse. I need a little guidance here. Are you being offensive, or merely stupid?" Before long, she is divorced and living in Oxford, and still, Lewis insists, they are just good friends and nothing more. Joy makes clear -- uncomfortably for Lewis, who is unused to such discussions -- that she expects nothing from him, although her silence about her own feelings speaks volumes. He even consents to a marriage of convenience in order to give her British citizenship. The brisk, sad little ceremony, held in a registry office, to a woman who silently loves him, is telling: The expert on the nature of God's love is a lost soul when it comes to the human variety. It isn't until Joy is diagnosed with a grave case of bone cancer that he begins to understand what Joy means to him.

The title refers to Lewis' belief that this life is little more than a pale reflection of the next; before the play is over, however, he will have entered his own personal land of shadows. We hear his smooth opening talk, about the meaning of suffering, two more times, showing how it has developed a serrated edge when applied to his own life. The man whose faith journey began in childhood, with the death of his mother, learns that belief isn't -- in fact, cannot be -- a bulwark against life's losses. As he and Joy come to understand, "The pain now is part of the happiness then; that's the deal."

There are a few awkward touches in Christa Scott-Reed's production -- an intimate tea party where nobody sits down, one or two moments staged on a staircase that aren't visible from the house right seating -- but she has elicited fluent performances from her two leads, who easily convince us that these two polar opposites could be soul mates. Gerroll, a much-missed presence on the New York stage, is an especially dashing Lewis, making plausible the idea of a mutual attraction between him and Joy. He also nails the character's central contradiction: The man who can compel millions with the assurance of his intellect is almost painfully clumsy -- like a toddler, learning to walk -- when dealing with emotions that most people learn to negotiate at a far younger age. He makes short work of the script's occasionally too-slick touches -- including a bit of comic business in which Lewis, out of his element in Greece, struggles to order a couple of cocktails -- and he sounds the depths of Lewis' grief with a tact and understatement that make it all the more moving.

Robin Abramson is equally fine as Joy, a woman who has lived many lives and whose hard-won religious feelings have a remarkable exactitude about them. (She is tough-minded in all things, even criticizing T. S. Eliot for lapses into laziness. Quoting The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, she says, "'When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table'? What kind of image is that? He could just as easily have written 'Like a cocktail sausage on a tray'.") Paradoxically, Joy, who is supposed to be a brash American, is, in a way, rendered more subtly than Lewis, and Abramson, with a single glance, effortlessly conveys the profound reserve of unexpressed feelings Joy harbors for him.

The rest of the cast is solid, especially John C. Vennema, in full Colonel Blimp mode as Warnie, tactfully providing aid and assistance to his brother and sister-in-law when needed, and Sean Gormley as the most acidulous of Lewis' crowd, who insists that he sympathizes with Joy's illness even as he continues to actively dislike her. Kelly James Tighe's set is dominated by a sliding wall that represents the fa├žade of a house, partly ripped away to reveal bookshelves; Tighe has also supplied an enormous wardrobe, located upstage, that opens for the play's brief excursions into fantasy, taken from the Narnia books. Aaron Spivey's lighting design is alive to the visual differences between a rainy afternoon in Oxford and a blazingly bright morning in Greece; he also supplies a lovely sunset-into-night sequence. Michael Bevins' costumes are excellent period creations, especially the chic, tailored look that, one feels, is exactly the way Joy would dress. John Gromada has supplied some appealing piano and cello sequences, along with such effects as bells, birdsong, thunder, and rain.

Fellowship for Performing Arts was founded to present drama from a Christian perspective, but, more often than not, it has seemed like The C. S. Lewis Players, having so frequently presented adaptations of his prose works. To my mind, few of them have succeeded; prose is prose and drama is drama, and never the twain shall meet. Here, however, William Nicholson's script -- which began life as a TV film, was later seen on Broadway, and was subsequently remade into a feature film -- is a solidly constructed piece of work that builds to a heartbreaking climax. Even those who aren't particularly sympathetic to Lewis' ideas can be moved by the painful lesson that he learns: This life may be shadowlands but the joys and pains that it offers cannot be ignored. They may even be the keys to faith. -- David Barbour

(6 November 2017)

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