This month, Lamb’s Players Theatre brings William Nicholson’s powerful and thoughtful play to the stage in Coronado. Shadowlands premiered this weekend to an enthusiastic audience, and the show runs through April 9th.
The tagline for Shadowlands is “a love story.” Yet one of the greatest delights of this production is watching another love story simultaneously: husband-and-wife team Robert and Deborah Smyth in the lead roles. The Smyths have been a part of Lamb’s Players Theatre since 1976, and they have played opposite each other for 37 years. Their chemistry and comfort with each other, as well as their pure talent and love for the story they are telling, add a meaningful and unique layer to the play.
But the characters — C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham — make this a memorable love story to begin with, for they were both famous and influential in the 20th century. Perhaps you already know of C.S. Lewis, the author of beloved books including The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters. He is best remembered for his contributions to literary studies, Christian apologetics and thought, and also fantasy and science fiction.
Also, for most of his life he was a confirmed bachelor.
When the story begins, Lewis (played by Robert Smyth) is a renowned professor at Oxford University in England, and he lives with his dear brother and only sibling, Warren, or Warnie (played by Brian Salmon). The audience is treated to high-spirited pub scenes and gatherings of Lewis and Warnie’s good friends, all men, and all brilliantly intellectual.
How would a woman invade Lewis’s contented bachelorhood? Joy Davidman Gresham found a way through writing letters. She and Lewis had a lively correspondence before she announced she would be visiting Oxford from New York, and she asked if she might meet Lewis for tea. She seems like an unlikely companion — unhappily married, confidently outspoken, and the mother of a young boy named Douglas — but she continues to appear in his life.
In the course of time, she eventually divorces her husband and begins a new life in Oxford. Lewis and Joy remain close friends until, to the great astonishment of all, they decide to marry. What follow are some of the sweetest years of their lives. They revel in their love and bantering intellect during their years together — but these years, as the audience will see, are shorter than they hoped.
During the intermission, I overheard several audience members talking. “I am crying like a baby in there,” said one. “I love the relationship between him and his brother,” said another. The play moves slowly, and there are parts of it that are bookish or erudite. However, I heard no comments about this, but instead picked up on the audience’s strong connection to the story. The listeners sympathized with Lewis’s fumbling into love and waking up to joy.
“There you are!” Lewis exclaimed to his new wife at once point. “It’s the sheer availability of my happiness. There you are.”
The two talk often of “the shadowlands,” which is Lewis’s word for this present life. “This life, which seems so real,” explains Lewis to an imaginary lecture audience, “is just the shadowlands. The real life is still to come!”
The stage design captured the meaning of “shadowlands” as well. Mike Buckley, brilliant stage designer, put all the scenery behind a gauzy curtain, and each piece moved through the drawn curtains automatically when it was needed. Between two sets of curtains stood a large wardrobe, and I loved how it was incorporated into the story as a nod to The Chronicles of Narnia, and was especially used by Joy’s young son, Douglas. The stage was framed by two towering shelves of books, the presence of which very appropriately framed the life of Lewis and Joy together.
Overall, Shadowlands is a unique offering to the stage, portraying both a love story and a tale of loss and longing, a discussion of this present life and the life to come, an intellectual wrestling with issues of our time and good-natured ribbing in a neighborhood pub. It is witty, true, and beautiful. It is well worth your time, not only because of the beautiful story within the play, but also for Robert and Deborah Smyth acting side-by-side with such wisdom and talent.
Tickets can be purchased on the Lamb’s website or at the box office.