Review by Pamela A. Lewis
C.S. Lewis, the Belfast-born British figure of letters, was one man engaged in myriad activities: celebrated Oxford scholar and Christian apologist, who penned such classics as “Mere Christianity,” “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Problem of Pain”; imaginative author of the beloved children’s classic series “The Chronicles of Narnia”; literary critic; essayist; lay theologian; broadcaster. But in “Shadowlands,” by William Nicholson, now onstage at the Fellowship for Performing Arts in New York, Lewis is simply a human being who must grapple with the play’s central question: Why does a benevolent God allow people to suffer?
When we first meet Lewis (known as “Jack” to his friends, and portrayed by Daniel Gerroll), he is delivering one of his highly polished and cerebral lectures on the nature of God. “God,” he argues, “does not want us to be happy.” “Pain is God’s megaphone to wake us up to suffering.” “Suffering releases us from the toils of this world.”
Looking every bit the middle-aged Oxford don in three-piece tweed suit and sensible shoes, Lewis proclaims the beliefs of the confident apologist he became after abandoning atheism and converting to Christianity.
However, Lewis’s predictable and sedate life lacks something that not even he discerns or acknowledges, although others close to him do. His brother, Warnie (played by John C. Vennema), observes that “Jack plays safe.” He is a better spectator than liver of life.
This comfortable routine is soon changed by the arrival of Joy Gresham (Robin Abramson), whose first appearance is in the form of a long airmail envelope containing her letter to Lewis expressing admiration of his work. Born Joy Davidman, she is an American writer of Jewish heritage, a former Communist and, like Lewis, a convert from atheism to Christianity.
What begins as an epistolary relationship soon assumes a more personal shape when Gresham and her 8-year-old son Douglas visit Oxford and meet Lewis. While welcomed by the more emotionally reserved Lewis, Gresham’s outspokenness does not go over well with his claret-sipping male friends such as Christopher Riley (played with delicious condescension by Sean Gormley), who sniffs, “Women are more interesting in theory than in practice.”
We soon learn — again via letter — that Gresham’s husband is divorcing her, giving her the freedom to not only begin a new life, but also inject Lewis’s with a different kind of energy. Despite their cultural and emotional differences, they are intellectual equals, and Gresham often succeeds in puncturing the seemingly impenetrable superiority of Lewis’ mind.
Lewis and Gresham move from friendship to deep love. Somehow, they marry, despite the Church of England’s unyielding laws against divorced people remarrying. Just when Lewis begins to let go, as he had to do when he learned to dive into a pool during the summer he became a Christian, life drags in its pain, and the couple must confront and endure it. Through beautiful staging references to “The Magician’s Nephew,” one of Lewis’s “Narnia” tales, Douglas (played by Jack McCarthy and Jacob Morrell at alternate performances) assists his mother as she faces a crisis.
Readers familiar with Lewis’s “A Grief Observed,” on which “Shadowlands” is based, will be pleased with the play’s respectful faithfulness to the text. The 199-seat off-Broadway Acorn Theatre is suited to the work’s intimate narrative and small cast. While the scenic designs by Kelly James Tighe suggest a limited budget, they communicate the period (early 1950s) and do not compete with the actors for our attention.
Christa Scott-Reed has directed a strong ensemble, with a few actors doubling and tripling up on roles. Gerroll as C.S. Lewis exudes kindness and the lack of worldliness that must have attracted Gresham. Robin Abramson (making her New York debut) gives her stylishly dressed Gresham a no-nonsense New York brashness, topped off with the hint of a Lower East Side inflection that contrasts with Gerroll’s softer manners and plummy accent. Vennema is especially sympathetic as the slightly stuffy but endearing Warnie Lewis. McCarthy is a sweetly obedient Douglas.
The Fellowship for Performing Arts produces theater from a Christian perspective, directed to diverse audiences, and has produced plays based on several of Lewis’ works. It also stages plays in Tulsa, Okla.; Columbus, Ohio; Nashville, Tenn.; Kansas City, Mo.; New Orleans; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Houston.
Despite the play’s solemn notes, there are humorous moments that push aside the clouds. “Do you ever turn the heat on in here?” Gresham asks Lewis with mock seriousness soon after moving into his home.
Although the question of why a benevolent God permits people to suffer, which preoccupied Lewis and dominated so much of his theological writings, looms over the play, there is prayer (“Prayer changes me, not God,” says Lewis) and the persistence of love, which make it possible to live with pain in this shadowed world.
Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. She attends St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York.