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Theater Review: "Shadowlands"

Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 pm;  Saturday at 4 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm
Photo credit:
Lamb’s Players Theatre

Writer and theologian C. S. Lewis was a crusty old bachelor living in Oxford with older brother Warnie when he accepted the suggestion of tea from Joy Davidman – one of his American admirers, who wrote and said she was coming to Oxford, and could they meet?

It was an unusual move for Lewis, but he and Joy – also a writer -- had been pen pals for a few years by then. She had also made a similar transition from non-believer to Christianity.

She was also married, but Lewis talked Warnie into hosting Joy and her nine-year-old son Douglas for tea anyway.

Lewis and Joy were both intellectuals living primarily in their heads. William Nicholson’s “Shadowlands” shows what happened when love and death got in the way of their brainy, clever conversations. At Lamb’s Players Theatre, Kerry Meads directs a splendid cast through April 9.

At the introductory tea, Jack and Joy get along famously, but she does (as planned) return to her philandering husband in the States. When she and Douglas show up in Oxford again, it is because her husband has been living with her friend and is asking for a divorce.

This play is perfect for Lamb’s Players, if only (but not only) because it gives Lamb’s founders Robert and Deborah Gilmour Smyth another chance to play opposite each other.

This is welcome, after their splendid turn together in last season’s terrific “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” 

Smyth’s Lewis is that difficult intellectual bully who can destroy most arguments without much effort.

He is fascinated by Joy’s ability to put him in his place with a display of equal intellectual genius.

Watching them is great fun, but nowhere near as touching as watching Lewis’ slow turn from verbal sparring partner to timid lover whose faith will be tested beyond the stretching point when she is diagnosed with fatal bone cancer.

Jack has spent much of his Oxford life in the company of a literary crowd that reminds me a bit of the late-night dorm discussions I recall from way back when.

But Jack, of course, earns money making speeches which include such philosophical observations as these at the beginning of the play: “God loves us so he gives us suffering” and “The suffering in the world is not the failure of God’s love; it is that love in action.”

Well, that woke this devoted agnostic up. But Jack appears to believe it, and I think he does – until that fateful moment when he has to admit two things difficult for him even to concede, much less reconcile: he is in love with Joy, and she will die soon.

It’s both fascinating and difficult to watch Smyth’s transition from intellectual snob to someone who has discovered the love he’s been pontificating about all these years, only to lose it too soon. 

Deborah Gilmour Smyth is up to every bit of her difficult emotional arc, moving from a Dorothy Parker-like intellectual smart aleck to a devoted wife who will lose her partner almost before she gets to know him.

Brian Salmon’s Warnie also adds a lot to the proceedings as the brother, who finally warms to Joy after a suspicious start. 

Gavin Reid August does a nice job as Joy’s son Douglas, whose introduction to Lewis was literary, in his fantasy novels.

Mike Buckley’s set (with bookshelves so tall as to be inaccessible) sets the intellectual tone of the show.

John Rosen and Paul Maley, Jonathan Sachs, Jordan Miller and Caitie Grady complete the fine cast.

“Shadowlands” offers two of our finest actors in top form.

It’s a treat not to be missed.

The details

“Shadowlands” plays through April 9, 2017 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado. 

Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 pm;  Saturday at 4 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (619) 437-6000 or lambsplayers.org