Most people think The Chronicles of Narnia when they hear of C. S. Lewis’s name, but he was already a distinguished academic known for his staunchly Christian views as well as essays and reviews. William Nicholson’s award-winning play Shadowlands lends a surprising humanity to C. S. Lewis, a very reserved Oxford don who is known otherwise as “Jack.” The story focuses on the relationship between Jack and Joy Davidman Gresham, then a pen pal from America. She herself was an award-winning poet who had read Jack’s books as part of her conversion to Christianity.
After Jack talks to an imaginary class about love and suffering, he makes an interesting point: Because human beings are basically selfish at heart, suffering exists to force us to look outside of ourselves and learn to be lovable ourselves as a result. He seems to believe that we have to make ourselves more lovable so that God could love us more.
I kept thinking about this throughout the play for several reasons. These ideas resonate very clearly especially in the second half of the play when Joy found herself diagnosed with cancer. Jack becomes very affectionate, almost shockingly so for someone who was very reserved. But more to the point, what did Jack’s ideas have to say about those who are disabled? Does that mean we are supposed to suffer so that others–or God, even–will learn to love us more? What if we are stuck with a physical disability that gives us pain, whether we want it or not? How could that make us more lovable, especially if so much pain stemming from not just the body within but also from others who are able-bodied? I’d imagine that it’d be very difficult to pay attention to other people if you feel jolts of pain when you walk, or if so many of them give you cruel stares just because your hands are gnarly due to cerebral palsy or because you can’t control the physical tics or the way your head is angled to the side. They have looked outside themselves enough to notice you, so how is that going to make them more lovable? I think those who are familiar with the disability community can see why Lewis’s beliefs about love and suffering might seem rather excessive.
In any case, the American divorcée Joy injects a much-needed energy of directness to the world of somewhat dour Oxford men, known privately as the “Inklings.” Jack is at first a bit put off by this, and he feels a bit ambivalent about her son Douglas, who is a huge fan of his Narnia books, but he simply sees her as an intellectual equal. However, he likes her enough to marry her legally–but not emotionally or physically–in order to allow her to stay in England. The second half of the play is the real deal–it travels effortlessly between Jack’s dilemma over falling in love with her (even though they were technically married in the eyes of England), his Christian beliefs, and the changes in Joy as she struggles with cancer. It is remarkable to see how Jack, superbly played by Simon Jones, seems to bloom like a flower in every which way possible, but always within character; he kisses her on the lips, frets over her in the hospital room, and listens to her. He looks alive and hopeful in spite of knowing the fact that the cancer will eventually kill her. In a way, I have to wonder if Jack was something of a closet disability devotee. For those who don’t know the term “disability devotee,” it means that the person in question finds disability–or the physical appearance of a certain (or all) disability–to be sexually arousing. The reason why I bring this up is because it appears that they didn’t have sex until after Joy fell to the floor from an unusually sharp pain in her hip, which led to the subsequent diagnosis of her condition. We will never know, but in the context of the disability community and this play, I find the notion an intriguing element.
The set design by Patrick Clark was lovely with its muted dark colors, but I was a bit disappointed by how far back some of the actors were onstage. If I didn’t know sign language and if I didn’t have open captions, they would be quite difficult to lip-read. In any case, the set transitions were as smooth as going from one scene to the next. It was like watching a seamlessly edited film onstage, so Joe Dowling’s direction is to be commended here. Charity Jones did an admirable job as Joy, but it is almost a thankless part because the play focuses so much on Jack’s internal transformation. It might prove interesting if there was a play exploring her life prior to meeting Jack; she had been a radical communist, an award-winning poet and writer, an atheist, a Christian, and an intellectual prodigy before she first met Jack. Right now she seems pretty much lost in Jack’s shadow as just his wife.
The ASL interpreters Susan Masters and Carrie Wilbert did a fine job of interpreting; in particular, Susan Masters was able to elucidate the philosophic complexities of Jack’s discussion. Wilbert did not seem as involved, but she was clear about who said what. She used some signs that I felt were inappropriate; for instance, in the sentence “I missed you,” she used the sign for “miss” (as in “overlook”) when it would’ve made more sense to use the sign “miss” (as in “disappoint”). For those who aren’t familiar with ASL, the language could have four very different signs for a word like “set”; the correct sign must be about the exact meaning, not the word itself. However, I was most pleased with where they were situated and lit in such a way that I was able to alternate between them and the stage.
Shadowlands may be a weepie, but it is a truly first-class weepie. Bring along some Kleenex, and have a great cry.
Access Press is pleased to have author and playwright Raymond Luczak as a regular theater reviewer. Mr. Luczak www.raymondluczak.com