By Sarah Downs
Translation. Transmutation. Transformation. These concepts resonate throughout the contrasting worlds inhabited by the brilliant writer C. S. Lewis, a professor of English at Oxford University and author of insightful texts on philosophy and Christianity who created the childlike fantasy land of Narnia, in his Chronicles of Narnia.
In Shadowlands, Lewis is tweed-y and a little disconnected – the epitome of “Oxbridge.” His lives a settled routine of teaching, dinner at college, a glass of claret, and home to work in his study. Lewis’s fellow university dons could be straight out of Good-bye Mr. Chips, talkers who live a bit vicariously through the experiences of people outside the ivory tower. The actors endow these storybook (or is that textbook?) professors with real character, particularly Dan Kremer as Reverend Harry Harrington, the only married one among this group of bachelors, and the excellent Sean Gormley as the sharp-tongued Christopher Riley, a man quick to dismiss anything that might disrupt the status quo. Their interpersonal relationships are distinctly British, composed and rarely emotional. Lewis shares a home with his brother, the slightly dotty Major Warnie Lewis, in a quiet arrangement that harbors no surprises. As Major Lewis, John C. Vennema is funny, with subtle depth and a Nigel Bruce-esque agreeableness. As a character, however, he is a bit of a cipher. The playwright could have been more generous in fleshing out his role.
It is into this settled domesticity that American writer Joy Davidman breezes, dressed beautifully in period clothing by designer Michael Bevins, that totally suits her character. She brings with her the ‘foreignness’ of America and her 8 year-old son Douglass, affectingly played by Jack McCarthy. Robin Abramson is terrific as Joy, rooting her performance in Davidman’s clarity and wit. At times Abramson’s New York patois feels a little too obvious, but she is nonetheless effectively real. As the play progresses we witness Joy leaning more and more toward Lewis, gently folding herself into his life, altering its course forever.
As C.S. Lewis — “Jack” to his friends — Daniel Gerroll is outstanding. Lewis is a huge role. In addition to being in every scene, Gerroll has to deliver several monologues on abstruse subjects. He keeps the material alive despite the fact that the wordy, overlong play makes the same point repeatedly in slightly varied reiterations that threaten to become tedious. We could have been spared some of the didacticism and used a little more action. However, Gerroll has endowed his character with the spark hidden vitality, and guides us through the verbiage as if he were, indeed, a professor himself.
The ingenious and magical set by Kelly James Tighe, subtle lighting by Aaron Spivey and period music composed by John Gromada, capture the heart of the play, evoking in turns the enclosed university library and the somewhat cavernous, neglected home in which Lewis and his brother rattle around. Warm lamplight and Victorian detail paint the history. How the set interacts with the characters offers us a glimpse into the future. Set changes proceed smoothly with swift-moving screens that change the space without stopping the action. On a small stage this is crucial. In its versatility the set can be viewed as a metaphor for Lewis himself — it never fully leaves academia behind, and yet conceals a true heart awaiting its release from imprisonment.
Clocking in at almost 2 1/2 hours, Shadowlands begins to wear out its welcome, especially in its moving but somewhat belabored final scenes, which is ironic considering that for all that time onstage, the love story feels a bit abbreviated. At the story’s conclusion it’s still a little fuzzy what drew Lewis and Joy together. In the end however, the answer lies simply in the mysteries of the human heart. Love sneaks up on C.S. Lewis and when it hits — it hits, amazing him with an unforeseen capacity to feel. It is beautiful to watch Lewis open the door to his soul, revealing the wonders that lie beyond.
Shadowlands, by William Nicholson, inspired by A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis; directed by Christa Scott-Reed; with Daniel Gerroll, Robin Abramson, John C. Vennema, Sean Gormley, Dan Kremer, Amy Bizjak, Stephanie Cozart, Daryll Heysham, Jacob H. Knoll, John Little, Jack McCarthy and Jacob Morrell. Scenic design by Kelly James Tighe, costumes by Michael Bevins, lighting design by Aaron Spivey, sound design by John Gromada, wigs and makeup by Tommy Kurzman. Ken Denison, Executive Producer; presented by the Fellowship for Performing Arts, Max McLean, Artistic Director.
Through January 7, 2018 at the Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd St. (between 9th and 10th Aves.) No performances on Nov. 23; Dec. 24; Dec. 31. Additional 2 p.m. matinee on Friday, Dec. 29. Tickets are priced at $75 and $95, available at www.FPAtheatre.com or call 212-239-6200. Running time 2 hours, 20 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.