God's Country

Just when it appeared that the reputation of noted Christian apologist and children's book author (The Chronicles of Narnia) C.S. Lewis might naturally diminish with the passing of time, British playwright William Nicholson rescued the prolific writer's name from virtual oblivion with the play Shadowlands. The absorbing drama, which tells the story of Lewis's relationship with American poetess and divorcee Joy Davidman Gresham, also enjoyed considerable success on BBC television. On the heels of its Broadway triumph, the play became an Oscar-nominated film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Subsequently, interest in all things Lewis skyrocketed.

"Jack" Lewis, as he was affectionately known, was a teacher at both Cambridge and Oxford universities. An atheist throughout his early life, he converted to Christianity in 1931 and was an ardent, outspoken defender of the faith until his death in 1963 (coincidentally, he died on the same day as President Kennedy). In 1956 the confirmed bachelor married Joy, whom he had befriended upon one of her visits to England. Their four-year marriage was, by all accounts, a time of unbridled ecstasy and intense friendship between them. Joy's death from cancer shattered Jack's faith in God and challenged the great man to reconcile the lofty ideas he so easily communicated in his writings with his all-too-human private feelings.

Nicholson's play is currently receiving its local premiere at the Aurora Fox Theatre under the direction of Ruth Seeber, who weaves a seamless story about Jack (Hal Terrance) and Joy (Therese Pickard) that's often humorous and occasionally moving. Featuring simple, fluid scene changes accompanied by tasteful shifts in lighting, Seeber's 150-minute production moves along at a comfortable pace. Best of all, though, Seeber effectively captures the play's essential love story while also giving Lewis and his philosophical points their due.

Before the house lights dim, Jack appears at the edge of the stage and begins to lecture to us. He repeats this ritual at the beginning of Act Two and at the end of the play, and his talks elicit a theme that audience members slowly accept as their mantra for the evening: If God loves us so much, why are our daily lives filled with suffering? Lewis's initial response to this seemingly rhetorical question is, "Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world." Though it's a perfectly reasonable answer to a perfectly reasonable question, Jack later discovers that his logical responses to matters of the heart pale in comparison with Joy's intuitive outlook on life.

The scene then shifts to Jack's Oxford home, which he shares with his bachelor brother, Warnie (a splendid performance by Joey Wishnia), a retired military man. We're quickly introduced to Jack's colleagues: Riley (Charles Kocher), a middle-aged teacher; Harrington (James Mills), an ineffectual, by-the-prayer-book Anglican priest; and Dr. Alan Gregg (Lee Olyer), another academic colleague. We soon learn that Joy, a devoted fan of Jack's writing, wishes to pay him a visit while in London. She and her son, Douglas (touchingly portrayed by Adam Rosenblatt), meet Jack and Warnie for tea in a hotel and strike up a lasting friendship.

Never comfortable when expressing his feelings, Jack bumbles and stumbles his way into Joy's life, at one point promising to marry her so that she might lawfully remain in England as a British subject. As the two newlyweds grow closer, Jack and Douglas also forge an indissoluble bond. But the first act ends with Joy falling to the floor in acute pain. When the play resumes, we learn that she's afflicted with bone cancer. Jack decides he wants to marry her a second time--this time with the blessings of the church. However, Harrington blanches at the prospect of crossing his bishop: The Church of England forbids divorced persons to remarry in the church. Availing himself of the services of a different priest, Jack marries Joy while she lies in her hospital bed.

Pickard is excellent as Joy, revealing to us a woman who recognizes that all of Jack's lofty ideas must be grounded in reality if they are to be meaningful to the lives of everyday people. Each of her well-played scenes is blessedly free of self-pity and mawkishness. Instead, Pickard exudes a brashness and dignity that are always appealing and uplifting. She talks with Jack about the feelings he will experience after her death and says, "The pain then is part of the happiness now--that's the deal."

Terrance blusters and stutters as Jack, properly illuminating his character's awkwardness in social situations. Nevertheless, he has difficulty portraying several moments of deep feeling that Jack should experience during the play. For instance, when Jack's friends attempt to console him shortly after they learn of Joy's illness, he says, "I suppose that would mean that I would have to love her, wouldn't I?" Terrance delivers those words somewhat matter-of-factly, even though it's the first time he's publicly expressed his long-suppressed feelings for Joy. An impromptu explosion of emotion would seem more appropriate to the stress-filled moment, yet Terrance keeps it surprisingly low-key.

Minor problems aside, this is a powerful, even heartrending production. When Jack talks to Douglas about his mother's death and says, "Maybe you think life's a mess, maybe it isn't," the emotion flows freely on both sides of the footlights. These are beautifully crafted performances, and they do justice to C.S. Lewis in a way he could never have done for himself.

Shadowlands, through February 14 at the Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, 361-2910.

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Jim Lillie

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