He’s a famous writer. She’s a fan. Though the two have exchanged many letters across an ocean — this was back in a time when people actually wrote their thoughts on paper and mailed them to each other — they’ve never met in person until now.
Such is the premise of William Nicholson’s moving “Shadowlands,” which details the unlikely romance and 1956 marriage between the prominent English theologian and scholar C.S. Lewis, author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and the American poet Joy Gresham Davidman. A new Good Company Players production takes what could have been an overly sappy, sentimental love story and gives it nuance, a gentle wit and a commanding sensitivity.
The key to the production’s success: strong performances from two GCP veterans. Gordon Moore brings his trademark sly warmth and effective comic timing to the role of Lewis (who went by the first name of Jack), but he also delivers a dose of no-nonsense intellectual gravitas. I like how Moore is able to combine a slightly stuffy arrogance with the slow acknowledgement that for all of Jack’s adult brainpower and experience, he’s a journeyman when it comes to falling in love.
It’s rare these days for Julie Lucido, who plays Joy, to take the stage. She’s usually a director and choreographer for GCP. Her performance really moved me, particularly in the first act, when she is by far the most interesting character in the script.
When Joy writes Jack a letter telling him she is headed to England from New York on vacation and would like to see him, he isn’t sure what to expect. Neither are we. He’s a lifelong bachelor who lives with his older brother (the excellent Jeff Dinmore) in a ramshackle home, and he seems content to lead a wife-free existence.
The first meeting makes clear, however, that this is no regular fan visit. Rather than fawning over Jack, the crisp and unreadable Joy immediately makes it clear she can be equal to Jack in terms of intellect and temperament.
Ben Spain, playing Joy’s young son, is a bright talent, and the play’s brief forays into magical realism, alluding to the world of “Narnia,” rest on his able young shoulders. (David Pierce’s scenic design and Evan Commins’ lights help create one of the most striking visual images I can remember in a 2nd Space production.)
One reason I like this production is that it’s hard to discern Joy’s intentions, which through Denise Graziani’s steady direction adds tension to the narrative. Is she looking for a friend? An intellectual sparring partner? A romance? A fallback for her own bad marriage? Some of Jack’s friends, including Professor Christopher Riley (David Otero, who manages to add substance to what could be a buffoonish, one-dimensional role) assume the worst: that she’s looking to snag a famous author for a husband.
In one of my favorite moments in the show, Joy reads a letter containing bad news from her current husband. She stands like a pillar center stage absorbing this life-changing event, and even as she remains mostly stoic, you can sense the churning turmoil within. It’s one of those pin-drop moments that as an audience member you can find yourself so wrapped up in that time seems to slow.
Time is a theme in “Shadowlands,” and it’s nothing new: We never have enough of it. If you were to take the religious view, which is a major facet of the play, God never gives us enough time — and what he does give can be maligned by misfortune.
Nicholson’s script has some flaws, particularly in the second act, when Joy’s intriguing character loses some of its complexity and becomes more an archetype of pain and adversity. (Lucido nicely meets that challenge.) There’s a sense of the play trying to sound intellectual without actually delivering on that promise. While it nicely tosses out the kind of garden-variety questions you might found in a pastor’s sermon or an introductory undergraduate philosophy course — Why does God allow suffering? — the answers sound more like platitudes than serious insights.
Still, the play’s strength is the unlikely connection between its two main characters. At one point Jack muses about the differences between observing life and participating in it. At an age that he wasn’t expecting to find a romantic connection, this great writer and scholar discovered that love can transcend time, tragedy, and anything else that the universe throws our way.
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