Shadowlands/Hard Times | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

Shadowlands/Hard Times

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment

SHADOWLANDS

Interplay

HARD TIMES

The Public Trust Theatre Company

at Urbus Orbis

"All is not well"--the stark truth of that understatement haunts C.S. Lewis, the British scholar-theologian who haunts Shadowlands, William Nicholson's wrenching tale of love found late and lost. In this 1990 drama (originally a BBC teleplay), Lewis's happy but doomed marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham offers both playwright and protagonist the chance to wrestle with big issues: how God makes us worthy of love and--even more intractable--whether suffering is, as Lewis believes, a "gift" from God.

Addressing us directly, Lewis says that pain is God's way of alerting us to the better life to come--a fatalism in the face of evil and misery that I find medieval. (It should come as no surprise that Lewis, author of The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia, was also a professor of 15th-century literature at Cambridge.) But fortunately Nicholson's well-made, well-felt script is far stronger than any metaphysical points Lewis means to prove.

Nicholson deftly contrasts Lewis's donnish life--surrounded by vaguely misogynistic pedants and living with "Warnie," his crusty bachelor brother--with the new life Joy offers. She enters Lewis's stuffy, tweedy world initially as a passionate correspondent who shakes him with her forthright questions: "Is it better to be the enchanted child or the magician who casts the spell?" Seventeen years Lewis's junior, Joy proves even more invigorating when he meets her and her Narnia-loving son, Douglas, in an Oxford tearoom. Perceptive and direct, Joy is an original and a free spirit, an American woman on the verge of divorce whose taste for T.S. Eliot and egalitarianism helps, as Lewis says, to "drag me into the 20th century."

Their impassioned discussions on religion and art eventually lead to soul sharing, her impetuous enthusiasm breaking through his British reserve. After staying with him for the holidays (a disruption that causes testy Warnie no small bit of bother), Joy divorces her faithless husband and moves to Oxford. To allow Joy to remain in England, Lewis enters into a "technical" marriage with her--a bureaucratic formality that becomes a real commitment when she moves into his bachelor digs.

Then, as if God were jealous of their three years of unexpected happiness, Joy develops bone cancer. But despite the agony of a terminal illness, she never loses her humor: "I'm a Jew, broke, divorced, and I'm dying of cancer--do I get a discount?" Testing their love as many years together could not, their pain seems proof to Joy and Lewis of a future happiness after death. Still their life remains, as an uncharacteristically inarticulate Lewis puts it, a "mess." Exhausted, he has no answers for Douglas when the boy asks why his mother is sick. Lewis's one recourse, as in the Narnia fantasies, is magic: in death Joy will be his strongest link to life.

Shadowlands (the title describes our earthly existence) is often heartbreaking; it requires concentration from its performers and fidelity to Nicholson's sharp sense of period and place. These come in rich doses in David Perkovich's staging, a fine inaugural show for Interplay's spanking-new theater in the as-yet-unfinished Pipers Alley complex.

Perkovich also plays Lewis, and he evolves with touching inevitability from insulated intellectualism to caring wholeheartedly for someone very different--a change that astonishes even Lewis himself. Karen Tarjan gives Joy pluck, resilience, abundant common sense, and a devotion to Lewis he couldn't have earned in a dozen lifetimes. What she doesn't yet suggest, in the second act, is the ordeal Joy endures. She too neatly separates the excruciating pain from the love that defies it; we need to sense the pain even as Joy rises above it. As stodgy Warnie, Leo Harmon charmingly moves from a flinty resistance to Joy's changes to gruff gratitude at being accepted rather than displaced.

At Interplay everything, from supporting roles to set, seems to fit. Paul Myer's curmudgeonly Oxford cynic is no nastier than he needs to be, and little Christopher Creighton is a winning Douglas (Matt Kohles alternates in the part). Brian Traynor's flexible set easily shifts from a comfortable book-lined study to a door leading to the golden land of Narnia, Tom Fleming's sepia-tinted lighting seems made for memories, and Caryn Weglarz's costumes are cultural comments in their own right.

Literature needn't be computer-generated to address contemporary problems. Among those who have argued for classes in music, art, poetry, and drama was--yes!--Charles Dickens. Hard Times, published in 1854, is a trenchant, eloquent attack on the soul-shrinking effects of the sort of cold-blooded utilitarianism preached by "dismal scientists" Bentham and Malthus and supported now by Pate Philip and his bottom-line cheapos.

Dickens contrasts the joyless factory town of Coketown with a rambunctious circus run by gentle Mr. Sleary, whose simple ethic--like Dickens's--is "People must be amused." The novel shows that puritanical pragmatism produces not just apathy and squalor but social unrest; Dickens's dark depiction of the Chartist labor agitation of the 1840s is a warning to the propertied classes to lighten up on the lower ones. (He also argues for making divorce available to those in the miserable arranged marriages that disfigured Victorian domestic life.)

Amusement is the enemy at Mr. Gradgrind's grim school, a "factory of facts" where the imagination is ridiculed. "Never wonder" is Gradgrind's gospel, and his children pay for his life-hating philosophy: Louisa enters into a loveless marriage with a "self-made humbug" named Bounderby while her brother Tom is drawn into debt and thievery. Gradgrind finally acknowledges the moral dead end he's taught his children, but Bounderby is too entrenched in class hatred to admit any humanity in himself, and certainly not in the slaves in his mill.

Though Stephen Jeffreys's 1982 stage adaptation neglects Dickens's delightful descriptions of circus life, it does treat the novel deftly and supplely overall and makes a sturdy vehicle for this promising debut by the Public Trust Theatre Company. Wearing simple costumes and using no props, the five hardworking performers provide a smooth joint narration and create 19 well-distinguished characters in a repertory tradition worthy of Nicholas Nickleby. Story telling at its cleanest and most imaginative, it's a 140-minute homage to Dickens's imagination and to the imaginative power of theater.

Max Baker, his accents and emotions dead-on, moves effortlessly from Bounderby's pompous bullying to Sleary's lisping sincerity. (He delivers Sleary's plea to the Victorians who despised actors and circus folk with raw pathos: "Make the most of us, not the worst.") Cheryl Graeff is captivating as the spunky horse rider Sissy Jupe--a cunning contrast to her sly take on Bounderby's snobbish, jealous housekeeper Mrs. Sparsit (who reviles her boss as a mere "noodle") and her bold turn as the labor firebrand Mary Stokes.

In another exhibition of remarkable range David James depicts both spineless Tom Gradgrind and his chief victim, the soft-spoken, much-persecuted weaver Stephen Blackpool. Donalee Henne makes much of Louisa's almost operatic repudiation of her father's heartless pragmatism ("I have never had a child's heart!"). Bruce Vieira, who also directs, easily stretches from the humorless but redeemable Gradgrind to Harthouse, the bored bounder who seduces Louisa. Unfortunately the former role hasn't yet jelled: if Vieira could suggest Gradgrind's pedagogical insecurity, his change of heart would be more believable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolock.

Add a comment