REVIEW: Shadowlands (Provision Theater)

  
  

More isn’t more in C.S Lewis relationship drama

        
        

Susan Moniz and Brad Armacost in 'Shadowlands', now playing at Provision Theater.

  
Provision Theater presents
  
Shadowlands
  
Written by William Nicholson
Directed by
Tim Gregory
at
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $25-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan E. Jakes

C.S Lewis had a flair for turning complex theological and philosophical ideas into digestible, entertaining narratives. He was a profoundly influential man with a distinct voice and a fascinating life. In Shadowlands, Provision Theater works with a rich subject with a compelling story. The creative team behind this bio-drama obviously has a fondness for the British author. What they could really use are some of his writing tricks.

William Nicholson’s script desperately needs editing. Heavy-handed, clunky, and overlong at two and a half hours, the text undercuts its own story with linear, tedious construction, and scattershot attention to dramatic build. Exposition is not the same as action, and Shadowlands relies mostly on characters standing around telling each other what’s happening to relate the plot.

Moments that play out theatrically are rare, but enlightening. On their tropical honeymoon, Joy teaches her husband to sit and bask in the sunlight. So far, we’d only seen the academic Lewis in authoritative formal wear in stuffy, drab English surroundings. Sprawled comfortably on a bench, Joy teaches him patiently, informing him that presence is a virtue without speaking a direct word about it. When he gets it, we see the tension release from his shoulders and the appreciative grin of realization. His wife is good to him, and without her, even a renowned intellectual like him would never have enjoyed this beautiful, divinely simple pleasure.

In that scene, Nicholson creates a thin-sliced moment of life–we understand why Lewis fell in love with Joy Gresham and what he’ll miss when she passes, all from a few sentences about the sun. Good theatrical scene work works as metaphor.

The rest, however, is so literal. Every key point of Lewis and Gresham’s relationship–letters, first meeting, introduction to friends, divorce, secret wedding, first bout with illness, public wedding, honeymoon, second bout with illness, death, grief–is played out or discussed at length. It’s one thing to be respectful with a narrative, but it’s another to champion reality over storytelling. Creative license is not a tool for the selfish, but the thoughtful. Refining a real-life story into fiction brings out a chosen element of its truth. Instead of highlighting or heightening aspects of the protagonists’ relationship, Nicholson and Director Tim Gregory jam in as much as they can, progressively devaluing the scenes as they pile more and more on the stage.

Substance needs style in order to move audiences. In Act I, while visiting Lewis abroad, after learning of her first husband’s affair, Gresham informs Lewis she is leaving back for America. He’s hurt. The curtain closes. A few moments later, it opens. She’s back and Lewis is surprised. How are we supposed to care about her return if we never had time to miss her to begin with?

Working with limited dramatic resources, the actors give remarkable performances. Brad Armacost reprises his role of the title character from Provision’s earlier C. S. Lewis Onstage. He’s lovable, thought-provoking, and a master of his language. He’s easily believable as the distinguished theologian. Susan Moniz (Gresham) is assertive, joyful, funny and extraverted.

(Some consideration: Friday night was only the second preview, after the final dress rehearsal and first performance were canceled due to the severe weather. The next few performances will likely clean up any tiny technical issues and tighten up the transitions, though again, the main culprit is textual, not performance-based)

Shadowlands’ respect for its material is admirable, but as C. S. Lewis taught us, so is imagination. Without it, no dedication to truth will ring as poignant.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: