“The Chronicles of C.S. Lewis”
I saw Shadowlands, a revival of William Nicholson’s sensitive biodrama about C.S. Lewis, the day a terrorist drove a truck into a group of bicyclists in downtown Manhattan, killing eight of them. The play, it turns out, begins with Lewis giving a public lecture that, after a few introductory words, includes these words:
|Dan Kremer, Sean Gormley, Daryll Heysham, Daniel Gerroll. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
This is this morning’s paper: Last night, as I’m sure you know, a number 1 bus drove into a column of Royal Marine cadets in Chatham, and killed twenty-three of them. They were ten-year-old boys, marching and singing on their way to a boxing match. The road was unlit. The driver didn’t see them. It was a terrible accident. Nobody was to blame.
|Daniel Gerroll, Robin Abramson. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Later, after Lewis experiences a terrible tragedy of his own, he finds, at least for himself, a way of answering that question. Many of us may not agree with him but incidents like what happened in New York only serve to remind us of his questions, even if, as in this case, someone very specific “was to blame.”
|Robin Abramson, Daniel Gerroll. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis (1898-1963), born in Belfast, Ireland, was a highly regarded literary scholar, Christian (Anglican) apologist, public intellectual, and Oxford (Magdalen College) professor (don), who was best known for his seven-book, children’s fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. The first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, features the eponymous armoire, which plays a symbolic role in Shadowlands.
|Daniel Gerroll, Robin Abramson, Jacob Morrell. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The two hour and 10-minute play, centered on Lewis’s (Daniel Gerroll) poignant relationship with Helen Joy Davidman Gresham (Robin Abramson), the woman he married late in life only to soon after lose her to cancer, is being given its first New York revival by the Fellowship for Performing Arts. Max McClean, FPA’s artistic director, describes the company as devoted to “stories from a Christian worldview that can capture the imagination of a diverse audience.”
Lewis is an FPA favorite, as seen in earlier productions, like The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, both well-produced yawns. Shadowlands, staged by Christa Scott-Reed, is a superior offering, although the work, for all its spit and polish, is not without its drawbacks.
Inspired by Lewis’s pseudonymous account of his relationship with Joy, A Grief Observed, the drama’s performance history began with a 1985 TV movie starring Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom, which Nicholson then adapted for a West End production starring Nigel Hawthorne and Jane Lapotiere, followed by its modestly well-received 1990 Broadway premiere, with Hawthorne costarring with Jane Alexander, and an even more warmly appreciated 1993 film costarring Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger.
Kelly James Tighe has solved the problem of multiple locales with a rather elaborate set of detailed sliding panels suggesting heavily paneled wooden facades. One background incorporates a huge version of the famous wardrobe that Joy’s young son, Douglas (Jack McCarthy alternating with Jacob Morrell, whom I saw), an avid Narnia fan, opens to the accompaniment of lovely lighting (Aaron Spivey) and music (John Gromada).
Also helpful are Michael Bevins’s appropriate-looking mid-1950s costumes, although I was surprised to see Douglas, an American kid in England for a brief stay, dressed to the nines in British private school shorts, jacket, and tie as if he were a student at Eton.
|Daniel Gerroll, Robin Abramson. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The play’s brief moments of fantasy are embedded in an otherwise realistic, mildly stuffy drama that begins in 1956 and introduces us to the tweedy, distinguished don, who lives in Oxford with his beloved older brother, Major Warnie Lewis (John C. Vennema), both of them confirmed bachelors. Intrigued by the letters he receives from a female American admirer of his writing, he agrees to meet her at a hotel when she writes that she’ll be making a brief visit to England with her 10-year-old son.
Joy, as he calls her (in real life, Lewis appears to have preferred “Helen”), and Jack (the nickname he gave himself as child because he disliked his real name), get along quite famously; although she’s abandoned writing, she’s a talented poet who once shared a prize with Robert Frost.
A New York Jew who became both an atheist and communist (characteristics mostly, and oddly, ignored by Nicholson) and then, influenced by Lewis’s ideas, converted to Christianity, Joy’s brash manner and probing intellect make such an impression on Lewis that, after she divorces her alcoholic, abusive husband, he agrees to marry her when she needs a legal reason to remain in Britain.
His relationship, however, doesn’t sit well with several of his somewhat misogynistic colleagues, especially the acerbic Christopher Riley (Sean Gormley), another bachelor, who appears to be jealous of losing his friend to his assertive new female companion. But, even though Joy delivers a brittle retort to Riley’s snide putdown of women’s intellects, it seems insufficient to motivate Riley and others’ bile for her after she’s dead.
The marriage, however, is a “technical” one, outside the church, and the couple continues to live apart, their physical relationship presumably unconsummated. Only when Joy appears to be dying from cancer does Lewis arrange to marry her in the eyes of God, although his Anglican friend, Rev. Harry Harrington (Dan Kremer), refuses to perform the ceremony because Joy is a divorcée. The otherwise pious Lewis cleverly rationalizes himself out of that corner.
It takes Joy’s suffering after she’s diagnosed with cancer and seems close to death for Lewis to not only realize how much he loves her but to finally manage to declare it. When she seems to be making an apparently remarkable recovery, the couple goes on a honeymoon to Greece, now apparently bound both physically and emotionally. The inevitable occurs and Lewis, his newfound happiness crushed by the loss of his greatest love, is forced to reconsider his thoughts on God’s ambivalence toward suffering.
The supporting cast, especially Gormley, Kremer, and Vennema, is fine. Daniel Gerroll gives a believable portrayal of the mild-mannered, bookish, British intellectual, shy with women, and retiring except when in the company of his intellectual equals or delivering an address. This reticence should only heighten the impact of those moments when he lets his stiff upper lip drop and he embraces Joy or shares his grief with Douglas. Yet, those scenes are strangely unmoving, largely, I believe, because Gerroll’s partners don’t offer him well-balanced counterparts. Robin Abramson’s Joy, for example, is almost a caricature of the pushy New York Jew (my plus-one suggested Barbra Streisand while, coincidentally, I’d been thinking Fanny Brice) and lacks the brainy heft the role demands.
Shadowlands requires two equally balanced leads to keep us honed in on what should be a tear-jerking relationship; absent that balance one’s attention wanders and there are no tears to jerk. To see what I mean, click on the link to the movie version given above, a Shadowlands that casts a shadow over this otherwise earnest revival. Be sure you have some Kleenex with you.
Acorn Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through January 7