August 16, 2012

RVP's 'Shadowlands'

Goodbye, Mrs. Chips

By Mark Langton

Article Launched: 03/19/2008 05:05:45 PM PDT, Marin Independent Journal

See Jack. See Jack run. See Jack run from joy.

See Joy. See Joy chase Jack. See Joy catch Jack - and die.

See Jack weep.

So goes a remedial outline of playwright William Nicholson's original stage version of "Shadowlands," now in revival by the Ross Valley Players through April 20 at their historic Barn Theatre in Ross.

But when Jack is C.S. Lewis - or Clive Staples "Jack" Lewis (1898-1963) - the Irish-born writer, lecturer, Christian apologist and author of "The Chronicles of Narnia" series of children's fantasy novels; and when Joy is Joy Gresham, the Jewish-American poet who married Lewis near the end of both their lives, things aren't quite that simple.

It is the 1950s, and Lewis (Chuck Isen) enjoys a reputation as one of Britain's foremost professors and thinkers, living a contented and simple bachelorhood with his brother Warnie (Alex Ross) in the cloistered comfort of Oxford academia. Our story is set in motion when this comfort zone is shattered by the arrival of Gresham (Jennifer Reimer), a fan who has come to England to meet Lewis, with her young son Douglas (neatly played by Philip Bohlman, a seventh-grader at Marin Primary and Middle School).

Despite that she is known to him only by her letters, Jack is nevertheless charmed by Joy's frank honesty and life-affirming sense of humor, as when she receives a less-than-warm reception from his rather stuffy colleagues. When Riley (Wood Lockhart), one of Jack's more condescending peers, asks Joy how she found England, "Cold and dull," is her reply.
"How original," sneers Riley.

"I wasn't talking about the weather," Joy shoots back.

As their friendship deepens, Jack surprises everyone by agreeing to marry Joy - "only technically," at first - so she may obtain an English citizenship. But when Joy is diagnosed with an advanced form of bone cancer, Jack realizes he has fallen deeply in love for the first time, and marries her in earnest as she lies dying in her hospital bed.

Anglophiles and armchair theologians will find much to like in this staid and somewhat off-kilter production of Nicholson's 1989 play about a staid and off-kilter romance. Ably directed by Linda Dunn, it does manage to achieve an authentic, rarefied British air, greatly enhanced by a marvelously artful and utilitarian set design by Patrick Kroboth and scenic artist Megan Kenyon. Comprised of huge bookcases and sliding walls, the set is otherwise dominated by gigantic, fairy tale-sized books, no doubt meant to invoke the world of wonder discovered by children in Lewis' fantasy tales - offset by the spot-on wintry Oxford gloom in Ellen Brooks' lighting design.

The production gets off to a slow start in the first half (imagine, if you will, "Terms of Endearment" without Jack Nicholson), but finds its stride in the second.

Isen is well cast as C.S. Lewis. His "Jack" is a model, mostly, of clipped diction and repressed emotions - indeed, there are times when he struggles so hard to choke out his feelings that he looks like he might require a Heimlich maneuver. But when he finally spits it out - particularly in the difficult scenes that deal openly with grief - he does so honestly, and with great tenderness. Mr. Chips, however, could use a little more Dr. Doolittle.

Reimer also extends the boundaries of her talent to encompass Joy, and manages to be believable as this bluntly intelligent, Jewish-American woman from New York - and even more so once we learn of her conversion to Christianity. The two actors make up for their lack of sexual chemistry by achieving a kind of emotional chemistry instead, suitable to this rendering of a seemingly chaste romance.

This RVP production boasts a couple of strong supporting performances. Most notable is Alex Ross, who renders Jack's devoted older brother almost like an abstract impressionist - bringing to mind one of those all-seeing Fools one finds in Shakespeare ("Twelfth Night," "King Lear"). Also excellent was Lockhart's curmudgeonly Riley. It is great to see this affable actor (a shape-shifter if there ever was one) apply his rubber-faced comedy to a truly unlikable prig. Anne Ripley practically earned an ovation for a wonderful walk-on as a nurse.

Although the playwright's philosophical conflict is clearly understood, the production doesn't always succeed in communicating it.

Loosely fashioned around the biographical facts of Grisham and Lewis's real-life autumnal romance, "Shadowlands" is a kind of anti-Pygmalion tale of equals, made interesting not so much because of the fact of that romance, but because of the philosophical conflict that the playwright found so interesting there. "Shadowlands" is not so much a love story as it is a somewhat academic exploration of love and suffering - and the reasons God might have for burdening us with either. Lewis' answer, that pain is "God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world," appears to sew things up neatly from an intellectual point of view in the play's first scene. "We are like blocks of stone," lectures Lewis to his students, "out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt so much, are what make us ... perfect."

But to speculate upon pain is not the same as living it. What Lewis finally gets at final curtain is this: Only when we accept the full measure of life's experiences do we open ourselves to its greatest joys - as well as its greatest suffering. (Indeed, it is during the throes of Joy's illness that Jack exclaims, "I didn't know I could be so happy!")

When the blows of the chisel begin to fall, the Oxford don with the easy answers finally realizes that, when it comes to love and loss, there are no easy answers. The time for answers will come, to be sure, but even then one must accept Lewis' one great, final epiphany - that there are things the heart can know that the mind will never understand.


What: "Shadowlands," by William Nicholson

Who: Ross Valley Players

Where: The Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross

When: Through April 20; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $16-$20

Special events: 2 p.m. March 30 post-performance discussion with the director and cast; 2 p.m. April 5 staged reading of Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Information: 456-9555,

Rating: Three out of five stars

Mark Langton can be reached at


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