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Review: Denver Center Theatre stages a stirring ‘Shadowlands’ about C. S. Lewis

Graeme Malcolm and Kathleen McCall as Jack and Joy
Graeme Malcolm and Kathleen McCall as Jack and JoyDenver Center Theatre Company

Shadowlands

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The story of author and scholar C. S. Lewis’ late-in-life love affair sweetly unfolds like a blooming rose in William Nicholson’s poignant play Shadowlands, playing at the Denver Center’s Space Theatre.

The intimacy of theatre-in-the-round lends itself to this very personal, very profound accounting fashioned around an eight-year period in Lewis’ life when he met, married and lost his wife Joy Davidson to bone cancer. Sitting in the audience is like entering Lewis’ mythical land of Narnia (his children’s book series). You are drawn in to Lewis’ living room as he sips morning tea with his brother. You sit in on his brilliant orations on faith, love and suffering in the lecture hall at Oxford (“Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”). You eavesdrop as the 54-year-old bachelor gently develops a genuine fondness for Joy, and you cry as he embraces her young son who asks “why” after her death. “The pain now is part of the happiness then.”

Scottish-born film, television and stage actor Graeme Malcolm makes his DCTC debut as “Jack,” as Lewis was known. He perfectly embodies the eloquence of the scholarly gentleman and captures all the nuances of a buttoned-up British man whose heart is ever so cautiously awakening to love: curiosity, wonder, delight. He is simply wonderful in the role.

In her ninth season at DCTC, Kathleen McCall plays the spirited Jewish-American poet Joy who found a kindred sprit in Lewis through his writings. She’s brassy enough to handle Jack’s priggish buddy Christopher (played spot-on by DCTC’s Sam Gregory) by chirping, “Are you obnoxious or just merely stupid?” Her New York accent, though sporadic, reminds us of Joy’s American roots, and her bright, snappy 50s wardrobe is a stark contrast to the post-war drab greys of the Lewis brothers’ disheveled look.

The unlikely relationship that sounds like a fiction novel begins when Joy asks to meet Jack on a visit to England with her son Douglas (aptly portrayed by Charlie Korman) in 1952, after maintaining a four-year correspondence with him. He meets her for tea with his older brother Warnie (played warmly by DCTC veteran John Hutton) with whom he shares a country home near Oxford. They develop a sweet friendship, and she returns home to divorce her philandering husband. She comes back to Oxford to the genuine delight of Jack, who agrees to marry her so she and Douglas can take up residence in England. The civil ceremony is a “bureaucratic formality” that Jack keeps a secret, not wanting his good-ole-boy buddies to think he has succumbed to a woman. “It will be as if it never happened,” he says.

The couple carries on separately, but the relationship grows fonder. Suddenly, Joy is stricken with terminal cancer; and realizing the intensity of his feelings, Jack arranges for a priest to marry them in her hospital room. At that moment, Douglas turns and enters the wardrobe door that opens to the magical land of Narnia (the only symbolism in an otherwise realistic play).

Miraculously, Joy enjoys a few years in remission, and the couple takes a refreshing trip to Greece. Upon returning home, the disease grabs hold again and she dies in 1960 at age 45.

Playwright Nicholson interjects humor into his play to keep it from becoming too maudlin, and that makes it entertaining as well as philosophical.

Shadowlands is about many things: God and love, life and death, pain and suffering,” said Director Christy Montour-Larson. “However, at its core is an unlikely love story of undeniable staying power: a heart awakened to great love is vulnerable to great pain.”

This is a play that will stay with you and make you want to pick up one of C. S. Lewis’ books. You may even want to see it again.

Shadowlands runs through April 27 in The Space Theatre. Performances dates are Tuesday-Thursday, 6:30 p.m., Friday/Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday/Sunday matinee, 1:30 p.m. For tickets, call 303-893-9582 or visit www.denvercenter.org.