by William Nicholson
Pacific Theatre, 1420 W. 12th Ave.
May 6-June 4

C.S. Lewis, called Jack by family and friends, is known today for his best-selling children's fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Narnia, especially The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But in the 1950s the Oxford English professor was equally popular and famous as an Anglican theologian.

In Shadowlands, playwright William Nicholson focuses on the conflicts engendered in Jack Lewis by a young American woman whose intrusion into his cloistered life challenges his personal and theological principles.

"If God loves us, why does he allow us to suffer so much?" asks Lewis, played brilliantly by Ron Reed, in a mesmerizing opening monologue. His confident answer: pain is God's gift to arouse us from our human complacency and to remind us that "this world is but a shadowland" compared to what awaits us on the other side.

Lewis' own intellectual complacency is severely tested when he falls in love with Joy Davidman (Katharine Venour), a New York divorcee who comes to England with her young son because she so admires Lewis' writings. Despite the joy that Joy brings into his life, Jack remains closed off from her and his own emotions until she develops terminal cancer. Then he and she are both faced concretely with the pain his theology so glibly accommodated.

Much of this script has a familiar, formulaic quality: uptight, repressed older man has his world busted open by up-front, life-affirming younger woman from another culture. But this odd couple mostly transcends the stereotype. Even with his tight smile, his hands jammed into his pockets, buttoned up in vest and suit, Reed's Jack Lewis always seems real and complicated. And Reed makes Lewis tremendously, unexpectedly funny.

Though less well developed, Venour's Joy is also multi-dimensional. A Jew turned Communist turned Christian, Joy more than holds her own among Jack's crowd of English intellectuals, playing a sharp-witted Belinda Stronach (or maybe Sheila Copps) to the icy, sexist Stephen Harper of Jack's cynical friend Christopher (Michael Kopsa).

Even when the script turns maudlin and soap operatic, Reed and Venour skilfully manage to salvage lines like "I only started living when I started loving you." But the apparent reconciliation of the theological issues at the end of the play feels unconvincing. And a plot line connecting Joy's son (Peter Johannesen) and the themes of the Narnia novels with real-world hope and pain is poorly developed.

Director Morris Ertman does a good job creating fluid transitions between scenes marking different times and places on the tiny stage, but he has trouble meaningfully utilizing all ten actors in a story that requires only four or five (including Jack's brother, nicely played by Roger Hamm). Dale Marushy's set creates serious sightline problems: most of the audience can't see the other world Lewis' study doors open onto.

A hit with Pacific Theatre's audiences, Shadowlands has been held over until June 4.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, May 24, 2005 1:41 PM
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