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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Crippling Joy

Theater Review

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  Pain and suffering, when they transcend the vague forms of conjecture and materialize into a cold, hard fact, can shake the firmest of faiths. When Michael Chobanoff, who plays C. S. Lewis in AcaciaTheatre’s production of Shadowlands, stands before the audience and declares self-sufficiency is the enemy of salvation, even those unfamiliar with his life will have an inkling his complacency will be severely tested.And so it is.

  Over the course of the two-act play the mellow joys of confirmed bachelorhood—hours spent reading in a quiet study or spinning abstract arguments about the fairer sex (all the more charming for being entirely ungrounded in experience)—are replaced by brief moments of rapture and nightly vigils by the bedside of his dying love. “Was it worth it?” asks the object of Lewis’ autumnal romance, the American poet Joy Davidman, as she languishes in his arms. Is it better to live life untouched by great joy if by doing so you can avoid the suffering that seems its inevitable companion? Perhaps the greatest achievement of this production is that it doesn’t answer this query with a firm and resounding “no.”

  Chobanoff’s Lewis is spry and inquisitive. Sure he’s emotionally repressed, but he seems magnanimous in his self-sufficiency. It’s easy to believe an attractive and intelligent woman 17 years his junior would form a platonic attachment to him. But love? Romantic regard is harder to envisage, and the chaste love scenes in the play seem slightly surreal as a result. This is reinforced by the fact that we never get a sense of how Davidman formed this attachment. Despite Maureen Dornemann’s capable performance as the sharp and savvy poet, her gradual insertion into Lewis’ life seems rather strategic. This is one failure on the part of the script; another is the wearisome and much-hackneyed contrast between the candid American and the tight-arsed Brit.

  The production also has its flaws; the discrete set makes a half-hearted and clumsy attempt to evoke the fantasy realm that runs parallel to the main narrative. On two occasions the study doors abruptly swing open to reveal a gaudy and flickering tableau of apple orchards that serves as a paltry manifestation of the Edenic world which Lewis’ Narnia books evoked.

  However these minor foibles are offset by intensely moving moments. By the end of the play Chobanoff’s cracked voice falters over phrases that had hitherto slipped so fluidly from his tongue. The underlying theme of Shadowlands may be the curious nature of God’s love or the complexity of Lewis’ faith, but more memorable is the ironic notion that experience makes the man, even if it leaves him emotionally crippled.