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Theatre in Review: Wakey, Wakey/C. S. Lewis On Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert

Top: Wakey Wakey Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: The Most Reluctant Convert: Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Suddenly, the theatre seems vitally interested -- almost obsessed, really -- with the Last Things. A few days ago, I saw Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' reworking of the Tudor-era classic Everyman, in which a human soul faces the fact of mortality and the necessity of standing before God and accounting for one's sins. The next day, I caught The Skin of Our Teeth, Thornton Wilder's comic account of humankind muddling through a variety of natural and man-made disasters; woven throughout the action is the awareness that, sooner or later, time must come to a stop. This week, I had back-to-back theatrical experiences that, in very different ways, ask profound, unanswerable questions: Why are we here? Why do we ultimately fade away? What is the purpose of it all?

Wakey, Wakey, at Signature Theatre Company, begins with a man named Guy, in a wheelchair. Addressing us directly, he says, "This was -- What's the best way to say it? -- this was supposed to be something else. This was going to be a whole different thing. But, you know, tick, tock, tick." After the briefest of pauses, he adds, "That's the sound of a clock, for you youngsters."

The line gets a big laugh; instantly, he has won us over. Michael Emerson's Guy sits in a strangely nondescript room, designed by Christine Jones, which is, for unexplained reasons, filled with cardboard boxes; his thin, almost concave, body seems to fold into the wheelchair. He says, "So, yes, we're here to say good-bye and maybe, hopefully, also get better at saying hello. To celebrate Life, if that doesn't sound too passive-aggressive." Even though seriously ailing he can spoof his condition; standing up, he announces, in mock surprise, "I can walk!" He also entertains us with a series of projections, some still and some filmed, including an uproarious montage of various animals who, thanks to a little fiddling with the soundtrack, appear to be screaming for their lives. He calls up another image and says, "I don't know what this is doing in here. Probably just a stock image we got, to fill up some time. Nope. It's the patient-only cafeteria in the End-of-Life-Care wing of Creighton DuPont Memorial Hospital."

And there we are: Wakey, Wakey is a 70-minute dying fall, and its considerable fascination lies in seeing Guy slowly collapsing inward, his vitality seeping away by degrees. His body seems to sink into itself, his eyes losing their sparkle and becoming ever more prominently hooded. He is eventually joined by Lisa his perfectly composed caregiver-- superbly played by January LaVoy -- who sits nearby, occasionally attending to him but more often patiently waiting for the moment when he has nothing left to say, when all breath is expelled, never to return.

In this, his most accomplished and affecting piece to date, Will Eno seems to be taking a kind of Thornton Wilder long view of human existence -- or, more to the point, nonexistence. At one point, Guy asks us to wrap our heads around the sheer inevitability of death: "Over a hundred thousand people died today. When we try to think about that, we probably forget that a hundred thousand people died yesterday. And a hundred thousand the day before that. There are a hundred thousand people who've been dead for three days. The coffee cakes and casseroles from friends are slowly disappearing; the families and loved ones, heading back to work, returning the odd phone call." And yet, more than once, Guy pauses, suddenly brimming with unexpressed emotion, as he realizes freshly that no matter how momentous his experience may seem, it is really business as usual.

Eno, who also directed, takes an approach to these primal mysteries that is contemplative, almost Buddhistic: At one point, an audio tone is struck "that is supposed to support feelings of gratitude," and we are invited to close our eyes and think of someone from our past who may have changed our lives. And as long as Emerson and LaVoy hold the stage, a mood of deep, possibly profound feeling pervades the auditorium. But the playwright is either too hobbled by irony or too afraid of the darkness not to spike the action with overly cute bits of business -- including a mild running gag about a word jumble game -- to evoke Guy's predicament in all its starkness. Eno continues to come across as a descendant of Beckett and Pinter, but with a need to ingratiate rather than evoke a sense of terror or dislocation. The finale, which I won't fully describe, other than to say that it includes high-energy music, a mirror ball, and snacks for the audience, strikes me as too whimsical by half. Everything about Wakey, Wakey is professional -- including Michael Krass' costumes, David Lander's lighting, Nevin Steinberg's sound, and Peter Nigrini's projections -- but Eno's world continues to seem like Existentialism Lite. Emerson is the real thing, however; the look in his eyes as he fades away says more than the play's complete text.

C. S. Lewis On Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert -- awkward title, that -- is the latest entry in the seemingly resurgent Dead Celebrity Playhouse genre, in which a famous person enters and, with no motivation, begins to tell the story of his or her life, apparently to the fourth wall. This format isn't necessarily a guarantee of drama dead on arrival -- in recent years, we have had engrossing pieces about, say, Rose Kennedy and Dr. Ruth Westheimer -- but the success rate in this genre is distressingly low.

This one is neither the worst nor the best of the genre. Max McLean, the author (and star), has avoided the trap of having Lewis give us the full sweep of his life; the script focuses on his faith journey over the course of the first third of his life. Devastated as a child by his mother's death and unable to connect with his father, he embraced Christianity largely because he was told to do so; in his heart, he knew he didn't believe in God. This attitude hardened at Oxford and calcified during his ghastly experiences in World War I. After the war, back at Oxford, he was stunned to hear some of his friends admit to believing, events that sent him on a long and painful reckoning with the idea of a deity who is love personified and who has sacrificed his son to save us from hell.

Because Lewis was such an assured writer, the text is filled with glittering shards of wit that illuminate his essential donnishness as well his remarkably plainspoken approach to matters of the spirit and eternity. Insisting that the universe will eventually pass away, he announces, "Nature is a sinking ship." Describing his unbelief, rooted in the agony of his mother's loss, he recalls, "I was angry at God for not existing." Turning to the experience of joy -- to him, the central fact of Christianity -- he describes it as "the scent of the flower we have not found, the echo of the tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not yet visited." Examining his conscience, he says, "What I found appalled me -- depth after depth of pride and self-admiration -- a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name is legion." Whether praising God or dismissing the universe as "a rather regrettable institution," Lewis was certainly gifted with a golden tongue.

And yet, in his very willingness to spread the good news, to popularize his experience of events that, by their very nature, must remain mysterious and interior, Lewis inevitably ran the risks of trivializing the very insights that he held most sacred. (Lewis, of course, has millions of fans who would disagree with this assessment.) This is one of the paradoxes of faith: The words at our disposal are not suitable to the occasion of it. The minute one tries to describe it -- especially as Lewis does, in a manner calculated to be easily grasped by any moderately intelligent adult -- it crumbles into nothingness.

In any case, McLean (who also directed, with Ken Denison) delivers a mannered performance employing what is almost a parody of an educated British accent, loaded with bass notes and vowel sounds stretched to the nth degree. (At times, he sounds a bit like Alfred Hitchcock introducing an episode of his old mystery series.) And, as happens too often at Fellowship for Performing Arts Productions, there is an irritating overreliance on the use of projections. Kelly James Tighe's set is a solid approximation of Lewis' study at Magdalen College, but it is backed by a screen big enough to show a major motion picture, which Rocco DiSanti, the projection designer, fills with sweeping vistas of Oxford, scenes of the English countryside, and vast, starry skies; against these, no mere human has a chance. One image, apparently the wall of Lewis' study, is filled with photos. When Lewis mentions a person from his past, the corresponding photo zooms in. After a while, one feels justified in asking, Are we discussing the existence of God or are we playing a video game?

Further gilding the lily is John Gromada's original music, a series of piano and clarinet pieces that add another level of artificial sweetness to the proceedings. Really, Lewis' words, the elegance of his argument, should be enough. Even I, who am not really persuaded by his testimony, find more beauty and melody in his sentences than in any of these unnecessary additions, which left me feeling just a little bit hustled in the manner of a television commercial.

The rest of the production, including Michael Bevins' costumes and Geoffrey D. Fishburn's lighting, is solid. I also have no doubt that there is an audience for this show, especially at this time of year; in fact, it has already extended its run. But, in a funny way, C. S. Lewis and Wakey, Wakey share the same problem: There are matters in our lives that are of the profoundest import, yet which can only be touched through the indirection of poetry. -- David Barbour

(3 March 2017)

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