By Karen Isaacs
If there is a dry eye at the end of Shadowlands now Off-Broadway at the Acorn Theater, you have never experienced the loss of a loved one.
This fascinating play by William Nicholson is an unlikely love story between C. S. Lewis – specialist in medieval literature, a lay theologian, radio personality and author and an American woman and writer, Joy Gresham.
Many may remember either the original Broadway production starring Jane Alexander and Nigel Hawthorne or the 1993 film with Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins.
What makes the play so fascinating is watching the middle-aged Lewis – who many know from his Narnia books –slowly let down his barriers to the rather unconventional American.
It’s being produced by the Fellowship for Performing Arts – which describes itself as creating theatre for a Christian worldview but they don’t shy away from controversy.
Immediately when you enter the theater, you notice the set. It looks opulent for a small theater. Dark wood doors immediately set the mood – they are carved and look old and expensive. Two steps help divide the playing area. The furniture fits perfectly in the university setting of the play. Kelly James Tighe is responsible for it. It has the British 1950s style. As you see Lewis and the other faculty members gather, again the costumes by Michael Bevins are absolutely right. Not just tweeds but suits from the period. These are formal men.
When the play begins, you are taken with the blending of the set, costumes and lighting with the expertise of the actors.
Daniel Gerroll could not be more perfect as C. S. Lewis. He’s religious but secular, reserved but questioning. As the play unfolds, Gerroll peels away the layers of Lewis’ protective reserve and shows the heart of the man which has been hidden.
Uniformly the other men are excellent well. Each conveys not only the British academic sensibility but also the different types. Christopher Riley, in a sharp performance by Sean Gormley is the faculty member who is most argumentative and contrary to Lewis’ Christian beliefs. They joust constantly. Others include Dan Kremer as the aging Rev. Harry Harrington, the younger academic Dr. Maurice Oakley, Alan Gregg and John C. Vennema as Lewis’ brother Major Warnie Lewis. He isn’t a member of the faculty but accept by all. He lives with his brother in a house near campus. All are puzzled by the relationship that ensues.
The discussion early on hints at the meaning of the play. Lewis holds that God wants us to be worthy of love or lovable. He also views suffering as a normal part of life.
Into the world of academic men, comes Joy Davidman, played by Robin Abramson. Joy is a contradiction in many ways. She has gone from Jewish to atheist, to now Christian. She is a divorced American woman who has decided to take herself and her son to live in England. She is a poet. As played by Abramson, she is very American and at times very gauche. This may be overdone but it makes the dislike of the other men easier to understand and Lewis’ willingness to continue to interact with her, harder to understand.
How do they know each other? Lewis was a well-known writer and BBC personality. She had written to him and a correspondence had grown. Now that she is in England, she writes that she wants to meet Lewis, so he reluctantly invites her to tea.
For Lewis, who in this play seems to have eschewed romantic relationships, Joy is confounding. She is outspoken and impulsive – very American, while also possessing a very fine mind. Lewis finds conversation with her stimulating as they spar over numerous subjects.
The other faculty members are bewildered by Lewis’ friendship with Joy. They view her as annoying and irritating and a disruption to their quiet lives.
Slowly the two develop a relationship and Joy also develops a relationship with Warnie. For Lewis the annoyance at being disturbed changes as he finds Joy bringing a fresh air into his decades long routine.
I’ll not go into all of the events that occur, but as might be suspected, eventually Lewis acknowledges that he loves her – perhaps loving someone for the first time in his life.
The play uses the son to interject a few Narnia references and some symbolic touches most relating to an open window. It may be a little too obvious.
This play could easily become too talky, too melodramatic or too snobby. Director Christa Scott-Reed has managed to avoid most of these pitfalls. She does not let anyone overplay the elements that are in the script.
What makes this play so worth seeing is not only the overall fine production values, but the excellent acting and direction by Scott-Reed.
Yes, the ending may seem melodramatic but this is play is based on what actually happened. It reminds us that happy endings don’t exist for everyone.
Shadowlands is at the Acorn Theatre, at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street. Tickets are available through Jan. 7 at Telecharge or TheaterRow.