'Shadowlands' beautifully traces Lewis' mental journey

August 24, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"I think that God doesn't necessarily want us to be happy. He wants us to be lovable."

These are some of the opening remarks spoken by actor Ken Ruta in the role of author C. S. Lewis in Olney Theatre's engrossing production of William Nicholson's "Shadowlands."

And though Ruta's character is unaware of it at the time, his words encapsulate the journey Lewis takes in this dramatic account of the late British writer and theologian's marriage to the American poet, Joy Davidman Gresham.

Expanded from its original form as a BBC teleplay, the stage play is as stunning intellectually as it is romantically, and it is receiving a splendidly restrained area premiere under Jim Petosa's direction.

Much of the credit for the production's impact belongs to Ruta, a West Coast-based actor whose poignant portrayal makes you wish he would spend more time in this part of the country. Not only does he convey Lewis' bristling intellect, more importantly, he movingly portrays the emotional development of this famous Christian apologist and novelist.

At the start of the play, Ruta's Lewis is as secure in his faith as he is skeptical about romance; by the end, he is a true believer in romantic love, but he is questioning his faith.

The catalyst for this change is, of course, his relationship with PTC Joy -- a relationship that develops in distinct stages. It begins as a correspondence, progressing to an acquaintanceship when Joy and her young son visit the author during a vacation in England. It then evolves into a friendship when mother and son become Lewis' neighbors in Oxford, and finally -- to Lewis' amazement -- it turns into a full-fledged romance.

As Joy, Valerie Leonard goes a bit overboard portraying a brash, outspoken American. But this can be excused if it is assumed that she is showing us the side of the character that led most of Lewis' friends to detest her. A more serious difficulty is that Leonard makes Joy's romantic pursuit of Lewis seem almost premeditated, instead of taking both parties by surprise, which would not only have greater dramatic impact, but would be closer to what the playwright seems to have intended in the script.

Nonetheless, the first act, in particular, slows down whenever Joy is absent. Even the touching portrayal of the bond between Lewis and his older brother -- played by John Neville-Andrews as a gruff teddy bear of a man -- cannot substitute for the energy in the scenes between the main characters.

The real test of this energy comes after Joy is diagnosed with bone cancer, and Lewis' faith and emotions are challenged. It is indicative of the power of both Ruta's portrayal and of the production as a whole that the struggle Lewis faces proves as gripping as Joy's struggle with her disease.

The subtlety of Lewis' transformation is echoed in Olney's beautifully realized physical production, highlighted by set designer Russell Metheny's stark panels topped by gothic arches, and lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner's haunting projections, representing the magic world in Lewis' children's series, "The Chronicles of Narnia" -- a world Joy's son enters on several occasions.

However, the greatest magic of this production is that it not only allows you to share Lewis' conflict between heart and mind, it opens your heart and mind in the process.


What: "Shadowlands"

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. matinee Aug. 26. Through Sept. 5

Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Route 108, Olney

Tickets: $20-$25

Call: (301) 924-3400

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