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‘Shadowlands’ is a ‘must-see’

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

The time is right for Lamb’s Players Theatre to produce the San Diego professional premiere of William Nicholson’s “Shadowlands.”

The production — directed by longtime Lamb’s associate artist Kerry Meads — is a must-see for lovers of C.S. Lewis with fine acting and meaningful, affecting work. It continues through April 9 at the Coronado theater.

In the opening monologue Robert Smyth, as C.S. (“Jack”) Lewis, addresses love, pain and suffering as if the “Oxford Don” is delivering a lecture to one of his classes. He then asks, “If God loves us, why does He allow us to suffer so much?” Nicholson’s play attempts to be both the question and the answer.

In the lead roles are producing artistic director Robert Smyth as C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and his wife, associate artistic director Deborah Gilmour Smyth, as Lewis’ late-in-life wife, American poet Helen Joy Davidman (1915-1960).

(l to r) Robert Smyth, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Brian Salmon and Catie Grady

The Smyths, certainly among San Diego’s finest actors, recently received Craig Noel Awards from San Diego Critics Circle for their performances last year in Intrepid Theatre’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” As Robert said in post-performance discussion March 12, they portrayed two entirely different married couples, one fictional, the other real, but there is undeniable love underlying both relationships.

Lamb’s Players’ relationship with Lewis includes the 1999 production of “Til We Have Faces,” Robert’s adaptation of Lewis’ book, which was performed in Cambridge as part of the centennial celebration of Lewis’ 100th birthday. Lamb’s also produced an unforgettable adaptation of Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in 1997.

Robert Smyth and Deborah Gilmour Smyth as C.S. Lewis and Helen Joy Davidman (Photos by Ken Jacques)

With “Shadowlands” Lamb’s demonstrates its usual, scrupulous production values, with Mike Buckley’s scenic design fluidly presenting the play’s many scenes, set in Oxford and environs. The largely male company is adept at creating character from the thin air of Oxford, England, in the early 1950s. Catie Grady contributes many female roles.

Lewis, one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, is the author of books as diverse as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Mere Christianity” and “The Screwtape Letters,” among 60 others. He taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, and lived with his brother Warnie (Brian Salmon) with whom (on the play) he enjoyed a decidedly intimate and comfortable relationship. They meet socially on a regular basis with a group of other male intellectuals that at times (but not in the play) included J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit.”

(l to r) Robert Smyth, Paul Maley, Jonathan Sachs, Jordan Miller, Brian Salmon and John Rosen

Lewis was a lifelong bachelor, with whom Davidman began corresponding in 1950. In the play, she visits him, and it is apparent that though she is still married, albeit unhappily, her purpose is to woo Lewis, with whom she has fallen in love through their correspondence.

He is quite resistant, as subtly telegraphed by Robert Smyth, throughout the couple’s initial meetings and her eventual move, with her son, Douglas (Gavin Reed August), to be closer to Lewis. It’s a costume design (Jeanne Reith) miracle how much is learned from Lewis’ tweedy jacket, so misshapen from long usage and constant wear that it hangs crookedly upon his body.

(l to r) Robert Smyth and Gavin Reid August

When her visa is imperiled, Lewis agrees to marry Joy in a civil ceremony so that she and Douglas may remain in England. Though they continue to live separately, he falls in love with her gradually, and when she is diagnosed with advanced cancer he moves her into the home he shares with Warnie.

The characters of Lewis’ male friends, created by John Rosen, Paul Maley, Jonathan Sachs and Jordan Miller, are by degrees stuffy and disapproving and hysterically funny.

Lewis’ conversion from dependable bachelor to lover was not universally endorsed. However, Lewis’ grief is all too real.

A two-hour-plus play dealing with loss and grief may not sound like a fun time; however, the play is rife with humor, mostly due to Davidman, who has wit to match and captivate Lewis. Their love story is exhilarating and life affirming. The play’s other great virtue is love, and it is for this that we honor the Smyths, Lamb’s and all involved.

—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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