Best known today for The Chronicles of Narnia series, in his own time C.S. Lewis was an admired Anglican theologian, lecturer and author of such books as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, and The Problem of Pain. Shadowlands tells his own story from 1953 – 1960. A complacent bachelor as an Oxford Don with his regimented life at the college high table with other men, Jack (as he is known by his friends) often gives public lectures on “If God loves us, why does He allow us to suffer so much?” To the amusement of his older brother Major Warren “Warnie” Lewis with whom he has shared a house for 20 years, he begins a correspondence in New York with Joy Davidman, wife of author William Gresham and the only woman he has known whose intellectual acumen mirrored his own.
When she shows up in Oxford with her eight year old son Douglas for tea, Jack wonders what this “Jewish Communist Christian American” will be like, but is charmed by her ready wit and supple perceptiveness. Like himself she is a late convert to the Christian faith after both having been atheists. He invites her and Douglas to spend Christmas at his and Warnie’s home in Oxford. When her husband writes that he has fallen in love with someone else, she has to go home and deal with the divorce.
Although Jack does not return Joy’s obviously ardent feeling for him, he finds he misses her companionship greatly. When she returns after the divorce, he agrees to marry her in name only to legalize her status in Britain. And then she is diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer, and the thought of losing her upends the life that Lewis has known all during his prior years. Suddenly his professed beliefs on pain and suffering, love and happiness no longer work. Experience is not only a great teacher but an agent for working on the human heart.
In depicting the Lewis/Davidson relationship, Gerroll runs the gamut of emotions from intellectual elitism to deep affection and friendship to passionate love. His modulated performance as Jack Lewis speaks volumes of emotions beneath the surface making C.S. Lewis a very appealing character. He is extremely convincing and moving as a man who finds he is “surprised by Joy,” to make use of the title of his early spiritual autobiography. Some will find Robin Abramson’s performance as Joy Davidman too aggressively New York; however, her very brashness and outspokenness makes an interesting contrast to the stuffy, regulated Oxford life that Jack has been leading and she represents a breath of fresh air. As the play goes on, the longer Joy remains in England, the less intrusive and forward she seems to be.
As Jack’s staid, placid brother Major Warnie, John C. Vennema is both warm and reticent as a man who has also lived without female companionship all of his life. Sean Gormley is amusing as an acerbic Oxford Don who can be accused of being both misogynistic and anti-American. Dan Kremer is sympathetic as the Reverend Harry Harrington, part of Jack’s Oxford circle. Alternating with Jacob Morrell in the role of Joy’s unemotional eight year old son Douglas, quite a reader, Jack McCarthy (at the performance under review) is fine as the unemotional but inquisitive little boy who wants the events in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew to be true in order to save his mother. Jacob H Knoll, Daryll Heysham and Stephanie Cozart give excellent support in a series of small roles.
Kelly James Tighe’s simple but elegant unit setting captures the feeling and look of old Oxford as well as a house inhabited only by men. The costumes by Michael Bevins are redolent of the conservative 1950’s when men wore vests and ties and women wore dresses and somber suits in solid colors. The soft lighting by Aaron Spivey depicts a world where one lives with broken boilers and the sun shining rarely. John Gromada’s original music and sound design is entirely appropriate for the academic English setting of the fifties. Claudia Hill-Sparks is responsible for the voice and dialect for the British and American accents.
William Nicholson’s Shadowlands is one of those subtle plays that grows on you as it evolves and weaves its own spell. Based on a true story of one the most improbable love stories of the 20th century, it covers a range of human emotions that should catch you in its web. Under Christa Scott-Reed’s assured and astute direction, Daniel Gerroll gives a memorable performance as theologian and writer C.S. Lewis. A play of ideas on the meaning and varieties of faith, it is challenging as one has to follow its intellectual and spiritual arguments. However, for discriminating theatergoers, this is an added fillip for more than simple entertainment.
Shadowlands (through January 7, 2018)
Fellowship for the Performing Arts
Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission