When people think of romantics, C.S. Lewis might not be the first name that comes up in conversation. Lewis is known more as the writer of “The Chronicles of Narnia” series and for his deeply religious beliefs and works. What the Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of Shadowlands does is show a sensitive side to him that even some of his admirers weren’t aware of before.
Originally adapted from a 1985 television film, C.S., or “Jack” (Producing Artistic Director, Robert Smyth) is already a highly successful author and an Oxford University academic at Magdalen College. He becomes interested in a fan he has corresponded with, poet Joy Davidman Gresham (Associate Artistic Director and director of Patron Services, Deborah Gilmour Smyth).
C.S. meets the married Joy and her son, Douglas (Gavin Reid August) on her trip to London. The two quickly start a bond that affects their lives.
It’s no secret that C.S. eventually wedded Joy, but William Nicholson’s script deals with their unusual courtship. Neither of them are committed to each other for a long period of time, although people close to C.S. and the audience know they will end up together.
As C.S. and Joy converse more, Nicholson finds the parallels and similar qualities that each of them possess. While the fantasy creator has a civil and relaxed persona, the poet is more aggressive and unreserved. What they both have in common is their love of writing and faith. He was a Christian for most of his life, and Jewish-born Joy became an atheist before converting to Christianity.
Religion is important to both C.S. and Joy, but Nicholson doesn’t handle that aspect by being preachy or heavy-handed. Nicholson’s script treats spirituality in a complex way and never simplifies the couple’s creed.
Using intimate topics and humor, Nicholson depicts the growing love between C.S. and Joy with warmth that feels genuine. One brief exception is an early interaction that they have in front of Douglas. Joy asks C.S. about pain he suffered through in his life, which seems like a random question. His response is quite affecting, and all the exchanges between the two are handled very delicately.
Mr. Smyth and Ms. Gilmour Smyth ground their roles and are never tempted to turn the extraordinary literate characters they play into larger than life idols. Each of them would rather be as authentic as possible, which adds to the richness of their portrayals.
They share an unforced chemistry, and their connection and compassionate work lead to pretty heavy scenes in Act II. Theatregoers can’t help but feel empathy for the ordeals Jack and Joy go through.
For Lamb’s interpretation, Associate Artistic Director Kerry Meads, directs one-on-one talks in a way that celebrates social interactions. She also has no trouble staging brief imaginative moments that reference “Narnia” or C.S.’s deep speeches that he gives through the evening.
Mike Buckley’s set, Nathan Peirson’s lighting and Blake McCarty’s projections create a very inviting and relaxed depiction of Oxford, England. It’s a very positive portrayal of the world famous university city.
Jeanne Reith’s costume that leaves the biggest impression is the one she designed for C.S. Before he even speaks, Mr. Smyth embodies the storyteller because of the neat and trim clothing picked for him.
For the most part, Patrick Duffy’s audio and Ms. Gilmour Smyth’s sound design and original music are soothing and relaxing to hear. However, a distracting sequence occurs during one of the last exchanges between C.S. and Joy. Booming noise makes their dialogue hard to focus on and fully understand. One hopes that this might be less of an issue in future performances.
Meads’ rendition is yet another powerful tale at the Coronado venue. Shadowlands should play well especially with literature aficionados, Lewis fans and those who enjoy complicated love stories.