Artistic Director Joe Dowling’s production of Shadowlands at the Guthrie Theater is a testament to the power of film. Playwright William Nicholson originally wrote Shadowlands as a TV movie for the BBC, and later adapted it for the stage—then re-adapted it as the basis for a 1993 feature film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Film, which can be a very intimate medium, is well-suited to this delicate emotional material, which would also work well in a cozy space like the Jungle Theater; but on the Guthrie’s grand McGuire Proscenium Stage, the play’s tender moments are diluted.
Shadowlands, a play written by William Nicholson and directed by Joe Dowling. Presented through December 21 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. For tickets ($24-$60) and information, see guthrietheater.org.
Shadowlands dramatizes the true story of Oxford don C.S. Lewis’s marriage, late in life, to an American woman who sweeps him out of bachelorhood with a combination of loving care and New World candor. Lewis first marries Joy Gresham for convenience—the marriage allows Gresham to immigrate to England—but then marries her again, for love, as she fights bone cancer.
The Guthrie production is impeccably professional. All members of the veteran cast, led by Simon Jones and Charity Jones (no relation), deliver their lines with perfect pitch and impeccable timing. This pays off most handsomely in the play’s many comic moments; on the night I attended, the audience laughed as loudly at subtle allusions as at obvious gags. Jones and Jones make a commendable effort at portraying romantic chemistry, but the empathetic relationship between Simon Jones and James A. Stephens, who plays Lewis’s brother Major, earned a much warmer response from the audience.
The set design, by Patrick Clark, is visually and logistically extraordinary. As the action moves from university dining hall to Lewis’s house to Gresham’s house to a hospital, furniture slides from behind outsized bookshelves and walls drop down from a large gilded frame suspended above the stage. The set changes may be too slick, in fact: they underline the production’s slick theatricality and distract from the characters’ emotions. What does work well to dramatize rather than distract is an artificial, eerily-lit, landscape that appears for only a couple of brief moments at the back of the stage to represent the imaginary world of Lewis’s Narnia, which Gresham’s son Douglas escapes into through a wardrobe that (of course) rises out of the stage.
Shadowlands is not particularly well-served by this large-scale production, but nor is the play spoiled. Nicholson’s insightful and ambitious script centers on a profound fact that most love stories are afraid to face: the inevitability of loss. “The pain now is part of the happiness then,” Lewis admits near the play’s conclusion. “That’s the deal.”
Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.