by William Nicholson
Pacific Theatre, 1420 W. 12th Ave.
May 6-June 4
C.S. Lewis, called Jack by family and friends,
is known today for his best-selling children's fantasy novels,
The Chronicles of Narnia, especially The
Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But in the 1950s the Oxford English professor was equally
popular and famous as an Anglican theologian.
In Shadowlands, playwright William Nicholson focuses on the conflicts
engendered in Jack Lewis by a young American woman whose intrusion
into his cloistered life challenges his personal and theological
"If God loves us, why does he allow us to suffer so much?" asks
Lewis, played brilliantly by Ron Reed, in a mesmerizing opening
monologue. His confident answer: pain is God's gift to arouse us
from our human complacency and to remind us that "this world
is but a shadowland" compared to what awaits us on the other
Lewis' own intellectual complacency is severely tested when he
falls in love with Joy Davidman (Katharine Venour), a New York
divorcee who comes to England with her young son because she so
admires Lewis' writings. Despite the joy that Joy brings into his
life, Jack remains closed off from her and his own emotions until
she develops terminal cancer. Then he and she are both faced concretely
with the pain his theology so glibly accommodated.
Much of this script has a familiar, formulaic quality: uptight,
repressed older man has his world busted open by up-front, life-affirming
younger woman from another culture. But this odd couple mostly
transcends the stereotype. Even with his tight smile, his hands
jammed into his pockets, buttoned up in vest and suit, Reed's Jack
Lewis always seems real and complicated. And Reed makes Lewis tremendously,
Though less well developed, Venour's Joy is also multi-dimensional.
A Jew turned Communist turned Christian, Joy more than holds her
own among Jack's crowd of English intellectuals, playing a sharp-witted
Belinda Stronach (or maybe Sheila Copps) to the icy, sexist Stephen
Harper of Jack's cynical friend Christopher (Michael Kopsa).
Even when the script turns maudlin and soap operatic, Reed and
Venour skilfully manage to salvage lines like "I only started
living when I started loving you." But the apparent reconciliation
of the theological issues at the end of the play feels unconvincing.
And a plot line connecting Joy's son (Peter Johannesen) and the
themes of the Narnia novels with real-world hope and pain is poorly
Director Morris Ertman does a good job creating fluid transitions
between scenes marking different times and places on the tiny stage,
but he has trouble meaningfully utilizing all ten actors in a story
that requires only four or five (including Jack's brother, nicely
played by Roger Hamm). Dale Marushy's set creates serious sightline
problems: most of the audience can't see the other world Lewis'
study doors open onto.
A hit with Pacific Theatre's audiences, Shadowlands has been held
over until June 4.