Group: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne University Black Box Theatre, Fine Arts Building, 6800 Wydown
Dates: February 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 13
Tickets: $15-$20; contact 314-719-8060 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Story: Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis, born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1898, was a renowned author of children’s books, such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and a Cambridge professor of Medieval and Renaissance English for nearly 30 years. He also was a staunch defender of Christianity following an earlier, atheistic period, debating the complexities of religion in the modern world with his older brother Warnie and several colleagues from Oxford. His predictable bachelor existence was challenged, however, when he began a correspondence with American Jewish poet Joy Gresham, who was intrigued by his writings and introduced herself by letter.
When Joy and her young son eventually visited Lewis, she confided that her husband was leaving her for another woman. Gresham became divorced and moved to England, where Lewis proposed a marriage of convenience so that she could remain. Eventually they fell in love, but not before she was stricken with a cancer that took her life just a few years later, confronting Lewis with the difficult juxtaposition of intense emotional pain and his unyielding theological beliefs.
Highlights: William Nicholson “Shadowlands,” for British TV in 1985 and adapted it to the stage in 1989 prior to a cinema version in 1993 that starred Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. The work enjoyed success in all three forms, and now is being staged locally in a polished and aesthetically sound production at Mustard Seed Theatre under the direction of artistic director Deanna Jent.
Other Info: Set designer Courtney Sanazaro sets the tone for this meticulous work with her handsome representation of Lewis’ academic digs that he shares with his brother and fellow bachelor Warnie. Props master Jon Hisaw sprinkles suitable accoutrements, such as looming bookshelves, a chess set, some comfy chairs and drinking glasses about in the main area, while a tiny area at stage right serves as Joy’s hospital room and her own modest apartment.
Michael Sullivan’s precise lighting underscores the magical realm of Lewis’ fiction, which opens to young Douglas as he enters the writer’s ‘wardrobe’ (closet), showing the appeal of Lewis’ ideas to his youthful readers. The prim and proper costumes designed by Jane Sullivan further anchor the play in the staid, stuffy environment of British academia, accentuated by Kareem Deanes’ carefully chosen selection of classical pieces in his sound design.
Gary Wayne Barker shows his customary ability to shape a performance with a delivery and interpretation that breathe life into a character, in this case the very real Lewis. One scene in particular exemplifies Lewis’ careful approach to life, when Jent has Barker and Kelley Ryan as Joy awkwardly standing a distance of six feet or so apart that appears more like six football fields to underscore Lewis’ stiff, overly careful sense of propriety, remnants of his painfully lonely childhood after the unexpected death of his mother.
Ryan conveys the yearnings and heartbreak of Gresham as well as her fiercely independent and intellectual spirit, something that Lewis’ cadre of old boys finds unsettling. That collection of not-so-jolly fellows includes Richard Lewis in a sparkling performance as Lewis’ retired military brother Warnie, whose candor about Joy is both predictable and later refreshing; B. Weller as the curmudgeonly atheist Christopher Riley; Terry Meddows as the slightly pompous cleric Rev. Harry Harrington; and Michael Brightman and Charlie Barron as academic pals Maurice Oakley and Alan Gregg, respectively.
Jackson Mabrey suitably shows the curiosity of young Douglas as he meets the renowned writer of children’s books as well as Douglas’ loneliness as the security of his parents’ marriage crumbles. Carmen Russell and David Chandler capably handle smaller roles, as do Brightman as a rather brusque physician and Barron as a pair of quirky ministers.
The title refers to a term used by Lewis to describe a land where people live without sunshine, both literally and figuratively. That’s part of the primary problem with this presentation, which too often is precious and delicate, more a curio piece than vibrant theater. As a result, its ponderous approach makes one appreciate life more by comparison than by admiration.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.