Jeff Berryman is not just a fine novelist. He’s one of my favorite actors. And right now, you can catch him playing the role of C.S. Lewis on stage in Seattle at Taproot Theatre…
SHADOWLANDS – Taproot Theatre – May 21, 2004
Some plays are so very personal. In “Shadowlands”, William Nicholson tells the deeply personal story of the English writer and Christian academician C.S. Lewis and his late-life love for the American, Joy Gresham. When she dies of cancer, the story becomes the even more personal struggle of a man of profound faith trying to understand the meaning of suffering, and why it should come in such waves of merciless sorrow and loss from a loving God. In Karen Lund’s beautifully directed and finely acted production she gives us the entertaining story of an isolated, odd-duck of vast learning and searing moral integrity, and his
unlikely, reluctant romance with a woman who idolized his impeccable work, and then loved his unfinished humanity. We also see the depths of struggle when an entire life built on intellectual belief is challenged by the even greater depths of love and need. It is a play about the need to find meaning in the most apparently senseless events, and to make sense of the meaning of our most fundamental needs.
Jeff Berryman is perfectly cast as C.S. Lewis, both because he embodies the character of a cloistered academic, a man of erudition and inhibition, but also because when he speaks ideas we know that they have the physical presence of real things, and when he challenges and humbles himself before God, we see the kind of dimension that made Lewis so important, not just to religious people, but perhaps even more so to the spiritually questioning. Technically, the great pleasure of this performance is the gradual and convincing way in which the character opens up and becomes more complete as he allows himself to love completely what he knows he will lose. He does that without ever becoming a different person, but simply so much more his own person. The play is framed by lecture sequences, in which the same great questions of suffering are repeated, expanded, and finally given the breadth and consequence of his experience. Mr. Berryman handles these critical scenes marvelously, and we have the genuine experience of sitting in one of those stuffy halls at Oxford, listening to a man whose voice changed lives, and whose ideas forced young minds to grow beyond the mundane and temporal.
Joy Gresham (Nikki Visel Whitfield) would appear to be the last person suited for such a distinguished and towering intellectual figure. Joy was an American, fleeing a disintegrating marriage, and traveling to England with her young son to meet the famous author. Miss Whitfield is a talented actress, and it’s a delight to see her move from her sterling performance as the towering Queen Igraine in “Arthur: The Begetting” to this plain-mannered, utterly unaffected woman of intelligence and little luck. The play comes up a bit short on showing us exactly why this was
the woman to change Lewis’ life, but she is smart, and above that, she asks, both literally and in her devotion, the cardinal question of the man. That is, “What is the truth? And where shall that lead us?” She is also funny, self-effacing, gentle, uninhibited and loyal. That such a good woman should love this man in return for the little he offers her makes the challenge that he stand up to his true feelings, and to his true relationship, both a moral and emotional imperative. And that, of course, is the engine of the drama.
Creating a world above which this love can transcend, a solid ensemble of Oxford fellows provide conviviality and supportive society. Especially good was Ken Holmes, as the unbelieving and cynical Christopher. The performance had just the right amount of control to make him simultaneously the biggest fool and no trifle. I also thought Marquam Krantz did a fine job as a sweet-faced, good hearted and shallow-minded minister. It provided the perfect contrast to the muscular theology of Lewis. Don Brady was excellent as Warnie, the brother with whom Lewis lived at Oxford for much of his life. Warnie was the image of an ivory tower intimate so thoroughly a part of the collegiate environment that he could stand on the library steps and pass for sculpture. But within his room, he was also a loving brother, an admirer of both Lewis’ success and his personal courage, and a sympathetic figure of someone to whom life would most likely never deliver such riches.
The scenic design, by Mark Lund, uses a towering wall of jumbled books to frame a wardrobe (that icon of the Narnia books), which swivels to reveal interiors. It’s a nicely conceived and thoroughly apt construction. The costumes, by Jeanette deJong, created just the right mid-1950’s period atmosphere. The lighting by Andrew Duff was subtle and effective.
“Shadowlands” is an intelligent romance about people who are not our usual, preconceived notions of a lover’s type. It is also an intellectual adventure probing the deepest chasms and ascending the greatest peaks of spiritual exploration. Lewis was uncompromising in his intellectual rigor, and his theology was just as unsentimental and vigorous. It’s a rare thing to be engaged and entertained in the theatre by the power of a spiritual challenge within an ordinary life, and to find in relatively prosaic events the grandeur of affirmation and
belief. Taproot brings its special mission and commendable standards to plays like this, and to the Seattle theatre community, and we are all the more blessed for it. Make no mistake, this is not an evening of preaching and easy uplift. But it is a great evening of asking hard questions and being satisfied with less than easy answers.