There's no way around it, Shadowlands , the play by William Nicholson about the brief, late-in-life love affair between writer C.S. Lewis and poet Joy Gresham, is a sad, sad story.
But it's sad for a reason: Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and one of Western civilization's most respected thinkers on all matters Christian is, at the age of sixty-eight, still struggling with the greatest philosophical question of Christianity: Why does a God who supposedly loves people insist that they suffer so much--or even suffer at all? The play attempts to answer that eternal question, and in so doing becomes both a love story and a meditation on God's rationale for doling out pain and heartbreak.
But Shadowlands is an odd play in that it contains very little internal conflict. Lewis and Gresham exchange letters, then they meet in person, fall into a genteel, platonic sort of love, until she gets cancer (sad), has brief remission, and finally dies (sadder). Lewis and Gresham never fight with each other; their struggle is against the pitiless will of God, who saw fit to bring them together then rip them apart just as they were getting to know one another. Even Joy's eight-year-old son, Douglas (Mykola Reiland), never raises a stink; he's so well-behaved it's almost eerie. The only other conflict in the play is the mild kerfuffle among Lewis's Oxford colleagues at the mere thought of Lewis, a lifelong bachelor, suddenly taking up with a woman--an American, no less.
And yet, the knowledge that the play is eventually going to descend in to a deep, dark place of grief makes Shadowlands strangely compelling, as does the knowledge that the man at the center of the play is one of the greatest Christian thinkers of our time. Directed by Joe Dowling, Simon Jones plays Lewis as an affable, pipe-smoking intellectual who is fairly clueless in matters of love. And as Joy Gresham, Charity Jones is blunt and acerbic, qualities that Lewis finds abrasive at first, but grows to enjoy and eventually love. The chemistry between them is quiet and delicate, and as it is with so many romances, the outside world--represented herein by Lewis's colleagues at Oxford--has a difficult time figuring out what they see in each other.
Much of the play bubbles along on a cushion of witticisms and reparté between whomever is onstage, which is entertaining up to a point. After all, the man up there is supposed to be one of the greatest intellectuals of the twentieth century, but most of his talk is idle (albeit amusing) chatter. In two-and-a-half hours you'd think there'd be time for at least one passionate, in-depth conversation between Lewis and Gresham, an exchange that engages them both equally and goes beyond tossing the names of a few obscure writers around. It's C.S. Lewis, for criminy sakes! Let the man think out loud.
That said, Simon Jones and Charity Jones handle the difficult second act extraordinarily well. As Joy is dying, and Lewis is realizing that he really does love her profoundly--in a way he has never loved anyone in his life--the couple's simultaneous coming together and pulling apart is heart-wrenching. During the tender, quiet hospital scenes, the audience I sat with suddenly came down with a collective case of the sniffles, and on the way out of the theater people were dabbing their eyes, trying to compose themselves for the ride home.
Fortunately, Shadowlands is supposed to make you feel like you've been hit in the chest with a brick. If that happens to you, don't be alarmed--it's God's way of saying you just saw a fine play.
Shadowlands continues at The Guthrie through Dec. 21, guthrietheater.org