by JK Clarke
Much is known of the life of British literary icon C.S. Lewis, but he was a man who meant different things to different groups of people, such that his personal history seems almost segmented. Children around the world growing up after the 1950s likely became familiar with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the first, and best known of his children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia; students of theology likely revere Lewis for The Screwtape Letters, an imagined correspondence between a demon and his apprentice nephew; and, of course, he is known for his literary and academic relationship with Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien. His prolific and remarkable career is responsible for a still active following by both individuals and literary groups. One such organization, The Fellowship for Performing Arts, whose objective is to “engage and entertain . . . by telling stories from a Christian worldview” frequently produces plays by or about Lewis, notably The Screwtape Letters in 2016, and most recently William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, currently at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row and playing through January 7.
First appearing as a BBC television play in 1985, then as a 1989 Tony-nominated Broadway play, Shadowlands is better known for its 1993 Richard Attenborough film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. It tells the true, unexpectedly romantic and heartbreaking story of Lewis’s romance with an American “fan,” Joy Gresham.
Directed by Christa Scott-Reed, the play begins with Lewis (excellently portrayed as dynamic and loving by Daniel Gerroll) settling comfortably into middle age, living with his brother Major Warnie Lewis (delightful John C. Vennema) in Oxford in the 1950s. Still an Oxford don, his time is spent either lecturing or engaged in pedantic arguments on the nature of life, death and God with fellow academics like Christopher Riley (Sean Gormley), who’s likely an approximation of a cynical and protective Tolkien: “Ah Christopher. Beware solipsism. Soon you’ll be believing if it hasn’t happened to you, it doesn’t exist.” Yes, that’s the type of people they are.
Fortunately, a curve ball in the form of an unexpected visitor interrupts his life. Having mentioned to his eternally single friends that “women write [him] letters,” which he deems exciting and satisfying enough on their own, he is suddenly caught off guard when one such letter writer announces that she is coming to visit. Apprehensive, yet intrigued, he and Warnie mull over the possible character of a woman—a boorish American, of course—who would so boldly impose herself upon a “famous” writer. Warnie finally concludes, upon hearing she is a poet, that surely she must be “bonkers.” Her arrival doesn’t exactly confirm or dispel this speculation.
At this point the story becomes a meet-cute tragic romance which would be trite were it not true. Joy Davidman (charming and funny Robin Abramson) is straight out of central casting of a 1970s sitcom (think “Rhoda”). A quirky, clever, middle-aged Jewish woman with her respectful young boy (who’s also a fan) by her side, Joy feels, even to audience members, incredibly . . . familiar. Which may very well be the sensation Lewis experienced, for he falls in love rather quickly and very much in spite of himself—much to the consternation of his stuffy academic colleagues. While outspoken, she’s smart, considerate and quite fond of him. Which must certainly have been irresistible to a sheltered, lonely and deprived-of-female-companionship academic.
Considering Lewis is a theologian who routinely (notably at the play’s open) discusses God’s need to make man suffer in order to show His love, the tragic twist in this romance should pretty well be expected, like a Chekhovian gun (if you see one on the set in the first act, it had better go off in the next). But Lewis’s belief that suffering is a demonstration of God’s love in action is apparently legitimate. He handles Joy’s painful turn of fate with dignity; yet the two live out their remaining days in apparent bliss, loving each other fully.
Shadowlands is a tender love story beautifully told by Scott-Reed and the ensemble. Kelly James Tighe’s set of sliding walls that divide the stage into entirely different rooms is effective and practical; and Michael Bevins period costumes are lovely. Whether or not one is invested in Lewis’s life story or the theological questions encountered, it’s a captivating, well-told and heartbreaking love story that will transport you, momentarily, into another world.
Shadowlands. Through January 7, 2018 at the Acorn Theatre (Theater Row Theatres, 410 West 42nd Street). Two hours 20 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission. www.theatrerow.org
Photos by Jeremy Daniel