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
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
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.