Playwright William Nicholson plays a bit fast and loose with some facts of Lewis' life—his persistent "Irishness" and mistrust of the English are not there. (After all, they didn't admire W.B. Yeats, and what does THAT say about a scholar?). Some incidents are rearranged or changed a bit to fit the story; for example, his companions, members of the storied "Inklings" at Oxford are fictionalized, and so on. But all that doesn't matter much. What is important is that this is one of the finest productions I've seen this season, or any other, for that matter, in terms of compelling acting, impeccable direction, and that magical, elusive quality of bringing the audience into the story by the magnetism of those arts.
First, credit must go to Deanna Jent. Once again, as she did in The Chosen, she has brought a story to vibrant life, but you can't catch her doing it. She is a master illusionist. Gary Wayne Barker is Lewis and Kelley Ryan is Joy, and they are terrific. Their versatility has been clearly demonstrated this season, as they played Tartuffe and the wife of the man he is scamming, with whom he has a comical liaison. For this show, they have done a 180 degree turn to modern times, portraying realistic, relatable characters involved in a love story for the ages. They've become the Lunt and Fontanne of Mustard Seed's resident artists, both possessing big talent and great chemistry with each other onstage.
The play opens with Lewis giving an address on the nature of God and the subject of suffering. This is a thorny question for Christians: If God loves us so much, why does he allow us to suffer? Does he know? Does he care? Lewis maintains that we suffer because he loves us, because the "chisel is painful," but it is God's way of making us grow through that process. The payoff is that, at the end, comes the reward of eternal life in a better world where we will know that what we have passed through on earth are merely the "shadowlands" of what is to come. This trope even provides the basis for his "Narnia" children's books in which paradise exists behind the back of an ordinary bedroom wardrobe.
In fact, that wardrobe is part of the talented Courtney Sanazaro's set. It opens into a garden upstage right, dominated by the magical apple tree. Otherwise, there is a flat, a house, city streets, a tea room, and the Inklings club room, all in a small space that looks big. The other designers also turn in fine work. Michael Sullivan's lights evoke both shadowy England and sunlit Greece perfectly. Jane Sullivan's costumes help define the characters and the period (1950s). Kareem Deanes' sound is evocative. Finally, I don't know whose idea it was to put the props run crew in maids' uniforms, but it really did help make moving stuff around less intrusive on the audience's mood.
When the action opens up, we see Lewis with his friends, among them the cynical, snobbish professor Christopher Riley who has very little use for Americans in general (a prejudice shared by the rest of the group to one extent or another) and women in particular. In fact, he almost gets his head handed back to him when he later mentions condescendingly to Joy that "men are the intellect and women are the soul" of humanity. He is a genuine snob, played effectively by B. Weller. Jack's older brother and housemate Major W.H. "Warnie" Lewis is also present, and Richard Lewis creates a polished, seemingly effortless performance as the old fussbudget.
Others include the kindly but hidebound Anglican clergyman, Rev. "Harry" Harrington (Terry Meddows); colleagues Alan Gregg (Charlie Barron), and Dr. Maurice Oakley (Michael Brightman). Barron also plays both the Registrar who first marries Joy and Jack so she can stay in England—a marriage of convenience. He is also the compassionate clergyman who performs their "real" wedding after Joy is hospitalized with cancer and is presumed by her physician (Brightman) to be terminal, sooner rather than later. Barron and Brightman handle their roles with aplomb, as do Carmen Russell and David Chandler in small supporting parts.
We learn early on that Mrs. Gresham has been writing fan letters to Lewis for some time before they meet when she takes a holiday in England. She seeks him out and he agrees to getting together for tea, dragging the reluctant Warnie along with him. She shows up with her young son, Douglas (Jackson Mabrey), who loves the Narnia books and asks if they are "true." Lewis dodges that nicely by saying that they are true "in the stories." Joy explains that Douglas "needs them to be true," and it's no wonder. We learn that Joy's husband, a frustrated writer himself, is a drunken, abusive philanderer who has mistreated both her and Douglas. The boy finds refuge in Narnia by passing through the wardrobe, presumably a metaphor for reading in Act I, and an act of desperation in Act II.
The Lewis brothers aren't impressed by Joy; in fact, Warnie is downright appalled at her forthcoming, presumptive behavior, but Jack invites her to come to their home when she returns to Oxford. She does, but Warnie absents himself this time, and Jack, finding the Greshams will spend Christmas alone, invites them to come to him. After a time, they become fast friends, and Jack agrees to the marriage, setting up a very funny scene with Warnie in which he says, "Oh, I guess I should tell you I got married," and Warnie's reaction is priceless. He is perfectly happy living as two old maid brothers, and he doesn't see any point in rocking that comfortable boat.
Joy becomes ill soon after they are married, but she has a near-miraculous remission, though Jack is wary of the word "miracle." After her collapse, he is desolate, realizes he loves her and marries her in the Church. They are able to enjoy four happy years together before her death, including a honeymoon in Greece. Douglas who was terribly frightened when his mother got sick adjusts well to living with the Lewis brothers. He is a bookish boy who loves chess and Mabrey is entirely convincing, especially at the emotional climax of the play after Joy has died.
Jack seems never to doubt the existence of God per se (he had embraced atheism at 15 but underwent a conversion experience as a young adult) yet he certainly does question some of God's decisions. Joy herself is a committed Christian, having been raised an Orthodox Jew and passed through a communist (presumably atheist) period. She then turned to Christianity after she witnessed a manifestation of the Divine in her living room on a particularly terrible night in her life with her first husband. Beyond faith, she and Lewis share so many common interests, which they discuss at length. Their talks are amusing, as he speaks in his posh professorial dialect and she trails clouds of New York whenever she opens her mouth. Both Barker's and Ryan's accents are flawless.
When the couple met, Jack was in his late 50s and Joy around 40. The age difference didn't matter any more than the cultural divide or educational disparities did. Also, the idea that passionate love is just for the young is challenged and and defeated. The love depicted here is deep and abiding; it transcends death. However, both are aware that Joy's mortality is the third character in their marriage, and that, as she says and he inverts and echoes later: "The pain then is part of the happiness now." And despite the shadow of death, the play itself is very, very funny. The cast are all accomplished comic actors, and that shows. The opening night audience laughed until they cried, then turned around and laughed some more and wept again. Shadowlands is not just an evening at the theatre, it is a profound experience of life at its most challenging and difficult and, at the same time, exhilarating. It would be a shame to miss it.