The Placer Performance Calendar


Great Local Shows - Theatrical Reviews

Title Shadowlands
Organization FreeFall Stage
Date(s) of show August 15 - September 14, 2014
Reviewer Dick Frantzreb

For better or worse, I came to this production with a blank slate.  I knew nothing of the life of C.S. Lewis, except that he was a novelist inspired in his writing by his Christian faith.  I had read none of his writings, though I had a vague awareness of the Narnia Chronicles.  The playbill announced Shadowlands as “The tragic love story of C.S. Lewis,” but I found it hard to imagine how it could be engaging.  I was very wrong, and by the end of the play, I had been profoundly moved.

The performance began with a long soliloquy by C.S. “Jack” Lewis, played by Craig Riley.  It explored some of humanity’s most fundamental themes:  why does God allow evil, what is the nature of love (including God’s love), and what is the purpose of free will.  The philosophical musings continued in the first scenes of the play, and I found myself wondering how and when this would become a drama.  The writing was cerebral, but clever, and the dialog seemed credible, but I was feeling restless.

All that changed with the entrance of Joy Gresham, played by Gina Hillmer.  Everyone knew where her relationship with “Jack” Lewis was headed, but that relationship was developed slowly, with exquisite restraint by playwright, director and actors.  The casting itself was right on.  Craig Riley, looked and acted the part of a middle-age British intellectual, with a gentle accent that was consistent throughout the 2 hours.  Gina Hillmer, could easily be 17 years his junior (as was the real Joy Gresham), and presented a winsome figure, with enough spunk (and New York accent) to be recognizably American, and enough sweetness to make the love affair credible.

I was impressed by the good writing in the play, and in it there was much food for thought.  I found myself trying to write down some of the interesting and profound lines.  And I’m still thinking I should get a copy of the script and spend time really thinking about some of the ideas put forth.

But this is a drama, and what carries it is the excellent acting, particularly by Riley and Hillmer.  “Jack” Lewis is plagued by quandaries presented by the conflict between his faith in God and the vicissitudes of human existence.  The most profound of these is his conviction that he would be violating a law of God by marrying a divorced woman.  I felt that Riley portrayed that inner turmoil beautifully, as he did the tragic illness and death of Joy.

I saw a similar emotional range in Hillmer’s portrayal of Joy.  It wasn’t far into the transition from friendship to love – and long before her portrayal of coping with the certainty of death – that Hillmer “had me” – I forgot that I was looking at actors on a stage and began empathizing with the problems of two real people.

Period costumes and the most elaborate set I have seen at FreeFall Stage enhanced the effectiveness of this drama, and of course much of its success has to be due to the sharp eye and dramatic sensibility of director, Alicia McNeill, who had a hand in so many aspects of this production. 

The doubts I had in the first few minutes of this show were erased by all that followed.  This is high-quality drama, engaging and thought-provoking.  For me, it was an evening well spent.

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