Shadowlands

Katherine Kupiecki and Paul Andrew in "Shadowlands". Photo by Jen Frederickson.

Katherine Kupiecki and Paul Andrew in “Shadowlands”. Photo by Jen Frederickson.

by LIZ PANTING, guest reviewer
When most people hear the name C.S. Lewis, they think of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Screwtape Letters. They may think of Christian theology, of an author who was friendly with J.R.R. Tolkien, or maybe even of a stuffy British man in tweed. What they probably do not think of is a love story. And yet Shadowlands is just that – the true story of C.S. Lewis (known to friends as “Jack”) and his later-in-life romance with American poet Joy Davidman.

Successful author and Oxford don Jack Lewis is an established bachelor, content to live a quiet life with his brother, Warnie, spending his leisure time with his (all male) friends. His life takes an unexpected turn as a casual correspondence with an American fan, Joy, turns into a real-life friendship. When Joy moves to England and asks Jack to marry her for visa purposes, he agrees, and there is always a hint of something more, but it is not until Joy is struck down by cancer that their romantic feelings for each other surface. Then a “technical” marriage turns into a true one, and Jack must learn to open himself to love, to reconcile his well-established religious beliefs (for example, he doesn’t believe in divorce, but Joy herself is divorced) with his newly discovered feelings, and ultimately, how to accept the loss of a loved one.

William Nicholson’s stage play feels a little heavy-handed at times. Frequently he skips subtlety and chooses to tell rather than to show; the play opens and closes on Jack narrating his feelings and beliefs on the nature of God’s love, and not a scene goes by without straight-on philosophical discourse. The questions asked are difficult ones (if God loves us, why does he let us suffer so much?), and it is a powerful experience to watch a man who thought he had all the answers realize that it’s a lot more simple in theory than it is in reality.

Local actor Paul Andrew (Jack) carries much of the weight of the performance, since the story is ultimately about his personal journey, and he manages to disappear into the role completely, seeming to be sincerely confused about how his longstanding religious beliefs could be shaken. He is aided by a cast that is strong across the board, although particularly noteworthy were Katherine Kupiecki’s brittle yet somehow sympathetic Joy, and Morgan Guinta, whose performance as Joy’s young son was quiet but heartbreakingly believable.

The production is situated in a black box theatre, with the starkly decorated stage set between two lines of rowed seating. Some may find this disconcerting, especially since the space is quite intimate; you can see the opposite half of the audience so well that you know exactly who is or is not tearing up. The piece is staged cleverly, though, so that nobody’s back is to either side of the audience for too long.

New company Open Window Theatre has set itself the goal of inspiring positive change and hope in its audience, being “family friendly” without being a children’s theatre. This goal is certainly met with Shadowlands, which, while too intense to be considered prime entertainment for children, is appropriate for audiences aged 10 and up, and brings up several topics that are worthy of discussion. Whether or not you identify as Christian, Shadowlands poses some interesting questions on the nature of love and the pain that inevitably comes with it. A physically interesting space and a solid cast make this play worth your time.

Shadowlands by William Nicholson. At the Open Window Theatre in the Metropolis-Minneapolis Building, 1313 Chestnut Avenue, Minneapolis. February 8-March 10, 2013. Tickets are $12-26 at openwindowtheatre.org or 763-732-8091.

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