Provo Theatre Company knows from experience that local audiences aren’t terribly keen on dramas. Notwithstanding, the theater has staged “Shadowlands,” a fact-based play on Christian author C.S. Lewis and the romantic love he found late in his life.
The risk involved makes the production worth noting. The high-quality result makes it worth watching.
C.S. “Jack” Lewis (Scott Wilkinson) was the author of children’s books like “The Chronicles of Narnia,” as well as Christian apologist writings like “Mere Christianity” and “The Screwtape Letters.” (Local readers may be interested to know that Lewis is often quoted by LDS speakers, as his views apparently mirrored the Latter-day Saints’, despite his having no affiliation with the church.)
The play begins with Lewis addressing a group in his characteristically persuasive but gentle style. Tribulation, he tells us, is God’s way of strengthening and fine-tuning us.
We soon learn, however, that this assertion is based more on theory than on fact: Jack himself has had precious little tribulation in his life. He lives with his bachelor brother Major Warnie Lewis (a wonderfully unflappable Reese Phillip Purser), spending quiet, well-mannered evenings having drinks with their associates in Oxford, England.
This pleasant existence is rattled when Jack meets Joy Gresham (Trish Reading), a New York poet who visits England with her young son Douglas (McKay Heaton) just at the time her husband is divorcing her. Jack, utterly inexperienced with women, is intrigued by her but their relationship remains platonic. Later, they get married only “technically” so she can stay in the country. This marriage of convenience leads to true love.
With Act 2, the trials emerge: Joy has bone cancer. It is spreading. She will likely die. Now all of Jack’s platitudes about enduring through pain are put to the test. Can he actually live all those nice-sounding things he’s taught all these years? Why, in fact, DOES God allow those he loves to suffer?
Jack is a beautiful character, not boisterous or extroverted, but a compelling figure nonetheless. He is played by Scott Wilkinson with as much humanity and skill as you’ll see on a local stage.
Trish Reading is endearing as Joy, though her comes-and-goes New York accent is distractingly strong at times. She and Wilkinson have a pleasant chemistry together — a good thing, since so many of the play’s scenes are just the two of them.
Along those lines, there is occasionally too much awkward silence as Jack and Joy get to know each other. The pace is generally lively enough, but it drags at times. Russ Richins’ scenic design — one of the lovelier sets PTC has had — helps the show’s many scene changes take place quickly and efficiently.
Director Loraine Edwards pulls what humor there is from the play, keeping it all from becoming terribly heavy. There are some achingly sad moments, and I suppose Edwards is right in calling the play “tragic.” But unlike, say “Romeo and Juliet,” which ends tragically with barely a trace of hope, “Shadowlands” ends after the sad events have come and gone and hope has had a chance to shine through the darkness. This is a meaningful, uplifting production.
A movie version of this play came out in 1993. It starred Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, whom Scott Wilkinson and Trish Reading bear a passing resemblance to.