Not So Bon Mots
Shadowlands, currently being produced by Bas Bleu, is a dignified, classy play, but for the most part, it's oddly lifeless. Set in 1950s England, it begins as C. S. Lewis, the creator of Narnia and author of a series of deeply Christian books for adults, gives a lecture on the topic of suffering, speculating that it must be a force intended by God to shape and perfect us. Only the belief that the world we inhabit is a mere shadow of the world to come can help us come to terms with earthly pain, Lewis says -- hence the title. Shadowlands is biographical, based on the relationship between Lewis and poet Joy Gresham, who died of bone cancer, although the script takes a couple of liberties with fact and chronology.
As the play opens, Lewis is in his fifties. Gresham and her young son, Douglas, blow into his fusty, ordered, donnish world of tea and muffins like a bracing wind. Douglas is a Narnia devotee. Gresham is American, Jewish, a convert to Christianity and still married to her husband in New York. What little humor exists in the first act comes from the clash of cultures. Lewis is stunned by Joy's very un-English outspokenness, and there's a wonderful moment when she decisively puts down one of his condescending colleagues.
But this act is very static. Lewis and Gresham become friends. They take walks together; they sip tea. Eventually, Joy leaves her abusive husband and settles in England. To help her get a permanent visa, Lewis marries her, but in name only. It's unclear what he feels for her at this point. What we're hoping for as we watch all of this is some witty or insightful repartee. Surely these two writers left some bons mots and insights worth stealing in their books and papers? But most of the dialogue is disappointingly earnest and predictable.
Soon after her marriage to Lewis, Gresham is diagnosed with advanced bone cancer. Faced with her impending death, Lewis allows himself to realize that he loves her. In a rather touching moment, she leans from her bed to say "I love you," and he hesitates, fumbles, then murmurs, "Better now?"
There's a chorus of bachelors that provides an occasional moment of amusement. It consists of Lewis's brother, Warnie, who lives with Lewis, a clergyman and a properly snooty friend or two. There are a couple of funny patches of dialogue elsewhere, too, such as the exchange in which Lewis forces a doctor to abandon her professional jargon and describe Gresham's condition in plain English.
But the characters simply aren't very sharply delineated. There's no real eccentricity here, or edge. Lewis and Gresham never have a real fight. Their squabbles are arch and playful, their expressions of love saccharine. Shadowlands is asking the important questions about the human condition, but the answers are no deeper than a Hallmark card. Certain significant lines keep getting repeated, as though they were far more revelatory than they are. Something about suffering being a hammer that shapes us, a comment Joy makes about her impending death: "The pain then is part of the happiness now."
Jonathan Farwell is very good as Lewis. He's tall, affable and arm-flapping, and he makes a convincing don -- though he seems a little more suave and sure of himself than I'd expect. He also brings an emotional fullness to the role. Adam Short, who played young Douglas on the night I attended, looks perfect for the role and performs with gravity and a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. Farwell's real-life wife, Deb Note Farwell, brings a lot of vitality to the role of Gresham, but you don't really see her as a thinking, feeling, individualized person. By the second act, however, she finds her feet, and some of her scenes are touching. Or they would be, if the play didn't drag on so long.
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