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In the Shadows

Theatre Hopkins Production of Shadowlands Never Quite Makes It Out of the Clouds

OVERSHADOWED: Robert Riggs and Vicki Margolis can't break the gloom.

By John Barry | Posted 2/23/2005

“Only a shadow” is the last line of William Nicholson’s 1989 play Shadowlands. It is delivered by the British writer C.S. Lewis, after the love of his life dies of cancer. It’s a bleak summing up of a bleak thesis: for this famous writer, whose brilliant fantasy world was immortalized in The Chronicles of Narnia, real life is only a dull, gray shadow of another world. And real life, unfortunately, is what Shadowlands, in the current Theatre Hopkins production, is all about.

Nicholson drops us in a drizzling landscape of snoozing, port-sipping Oxford dons in 1950s England. Without allowing himself—or the audience—the briefest glimpse of the charismatic fantasy world behind Lewis’ work, Nicholson takes up the far-from-salacious tale of a 57-year-old writer being chased down by a literary groupie 17 years his junior. Jewish divorcée Joy Davidman must have seen something—a little twinkle of humor there, or a spark of tension—that we don’t.

We take for granted where it’s going to end: The self-absorbed literary icon finally gets a glimpse of true happiness. But it’s a long trip, largely powered by inertia. There’s a period of bland friendship, during which Lewis marries Joy to give her British citizenship. He sips tea with her, shuffles around her house, helps her move in, and spends a lot of intellectual energy trying to convince his winking friends that they’re not sleeping together.

Lewis’ courtship of Joy is basically confined to her deathbed, where, once he realizes that she’s dying of cancer, he decides to tie the knot. Marital bliss is largely confined to the stay of execution before the illness makes its final assault. Lewis’ most ecstatic moment occurs as he delivers a panegyric to domestic bliss. The problem, however, is that he seems to regret losing that sense of comfortable companionship more than he regrets losing Joy herself.

The stage at the Theatre Hopkins barn, frankly, wasn’t meant to accommodate Shadowlands. A well-executed silhouette of Oxford against a murky, orange sky offers us a glimpse of a barren landscape, but it’s forced to squeeze itself into a stage that’s cluttered with shifting panels, wandering furniture, and a lighting arrangement that is supposed to facilitate a tedious series of scene changes. You work with what you’ve got, and director Suzanne Pratt uses some imaginative blocking to incorporate Nicholson’s itinerant style. But it’s impossible to expect the audience to believe that characters are switching houses—or even countries—simply by moving from one side of this compact set to the other.

The atmosphere was clearly difficult for the actors to accommodate. Nicholson calls for a small Oxfordian crowd of aging professors, cheeks inflamed by thimblefuls of port, discoursing on life, love, and god. J.R. Lyston as Lewis’ brother, Warnie, seemed most comfortable with his task—falling back on his trademark Falstaffian portrayal of a wheezing, overweight gentleman in decline. Donald Hart’s portrayal of the timorous Rev. Harry Harrington was handicapped with a strangely lisping accent of indeterminate origin. Seamus Dockery as the freethinking atheist Christopher provided an adequate philosophic foil for Lewis’ character, but only at the end did he move beyond verbal ripostes.

Robert Riggs as Lewis is actually quite convincing, and he moves comfortably—perhaps too comfortably—into the tweedy, articulate central character. The play is sandwiched between two of his monologues on love and suffering, both in lecture format, and the last one is delivered to great effect. But his character doesn’t step out of the fog until then. Vicki Margolis’ portrayal of Joy as a breathless, hesitant acolyte is frustratingly vague; only in the second acts does she turn into a more assertive partner.

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