“For believe me, this world that seems to us so substantial is no more than the shadowlands. Real life has not begun yet.”
The final line of Shadowlands’ opening monologue sets the theme for William Nicholson’s drama about life and love. C.S. Lewis (better known to his friends as Jack) speaks directly to the audience at Lamb’s Players Theatre. On the sparse but elegant set, opaque curtains make up the backdrop, revealing the outlines of furniture. Two narrow bookcases, filled with hardcover books on nearly all 16 shelves, stretch floor to ceiling. They frame the stage and serve as a proper tribute to a play about a famous author…two famous authors, really.
Shadowlands tells the story of C.S. Lewis and his late-in-life romance with Joy Davidman Gresham, an American poet. Director Kerry Meads cast real-life husband and wife Robert Smyth and Deborah Gilmour Smyth in the roles. A great choice, as they bring subtle nuances and gentle longing to the characters. Joy always speaks her mind and confesses her adoration for Jack. He remains distant. He uses religion as his shield and believes a person can only be married once under the eyes of God. However, he eventually finds a loophole and the two are married not once, but twice.
Their happiness lasts only a short time. Unfortunately, the first act does not. The initial setup of Jack’s bachelorhood, before Joy enters, takes too long. The dialogue seems contrived at times with literary references and allusions.
Shadows grow when Joy is diagnosed with cancer. The second act is slow moving even as it follows the emotional roller coaster of caring for a sick loved one. Deborah Smyth offers a polished performance as we are immersed in the agony of her pain and the positive outlook she has with her recovery. Robert Smyth’s portrayal of Jack’s love and discomfort is palpable. One can feel the undercurrent of fear he has for his wife’s impending death.
Some actors stand out more than others in the nine-person cast. Two are onstage often, serving as close witnesses to the journey. Lewis’s brother Warnie is reticent to support the marriage but ultimately comes around, unlike the majority of Lewis’s friends. Brian Salmon is perfect in the role, his movements and expressions offering well-timed comic relief. Joy’s son (she had two in real life), Douglas Gresham, is a polite boy, interested in C.S. Lewis’s novels for the escape. Gavin Reid August does a great job playing the reserved character, blending into the landscape at times, sitting cross-legged with a book in hand. Douglas’s scenes also offer a sort of bizarre respite from realism as the wardrobe door opens and he disappears into what we can only assume is Narnia.
Lighting designer Nathan Peirson works magic with key points, allowing the light to rise — literally — from the shadowlands. But for Jack, his narrative had changed. Real life may have actually begun before the afterlife.
Playing through April 9