"It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent condition of both truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense. I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition. It is, I confess, undeniable that such a view indirectly implies a kind of truth or rightness in the imagination itself."
-- C.S. Lewis
The great Christian apologist and noted fantasy writer Clive Staples Lewis was certainly no stranger to the concept of death. When he was only 8 years old he lost his mother to cancer. Within a year he would also lose his uncle and his grandfather. As an officer in the British infantry during WWI he watched his fellow soldiers go down in the heat of battle, a best friend and former roommate among them.
It's not at all surprising, given his lifelong proximity to death, that the theme of resurrection is so abundant in Lewis' fiction. In fact, The Magician's Nephew is, in the most metaphoric sense possible, an autobiography of the writer's secret soul. It tells the story of a young man who journeys into a magical kingdom hoping to find a golden apple that will save his dying mother. No doubt, Lewis wished he could have somehow gone back in time and done the same. The Magician's Nephew also tells the story of how Narnia, Lewis' fantastical country filled with elves, sprites, talking lions, and deep magic, was created. Shadowlands, which plays at Germantown Community Theatre through May 6th, shows how in real life Lewis created his own, less exciting world in order to avoid the perils of emotional attachment. It focuses on Lewis' strange love affair with American divorcée Joy Davidman, who died of bone cancer only three years after their secret marriage. It is a simple, straightforward play entirely bereft of razzmatazz. And yet, in its own unassuming way, it's as moving a piece of theater as you are likely to find.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first book in the Narnia series, a group of children discover an alternate universe while playing a game of hide-and-seek. In Shadowlands, Lewis, an avowed bachelor, discovers that he has been playing this same game for the better part of his life. He has cloistered himself in a world of literature and religious academia, allowing himself only the company of the curmudgeonly "Inklings," a group of fellow wits who took as much pleasure in debating theology as they did in swilling beer and telling naughty stories. All the while, Lewis, using intellect alone, has been seeking the love of an elusive and seemingly capricious God. When a bright, attractive, and down-on-her-luck American divorcée stumbles into his life, Lewis, against his better judgment, experiences something of an emotional resurrection.
Though he was born in Belfast, Ireland, C.S. Lewis was almost a caricature of the stodgy comfort-seeking British intellectual. His long-toothed "hrum-hrooming" speech was so very distinctive that friend and fellow fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien adopted it for the character of Treebeard in his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Former GCT executive director Keith Salter, who plays Lewis in Germantown's Shadowlands, makes no attempt to mimic his character's famed vocal tics. In fact, he makes no effort whatsoever to even do a British dialect. And that's more than likely a good thing. Dialects can be tricky, and a poorly executed accent is a terrible distraction for the audience. It's far better to focus on honesty and intent. Wisely, Jack Kendall, who plays Lewis' brother Warnie, does the same. Unfortunately, many of the remaining cast members have not followed Salter's lead and have chosen to use a British accent. Even if they were proficient in this, which they are not, it would create problems with continuity within the play. As it stands, those who insist on using the sloppy dialects which don't sound like any language spoken on the planet Earth, significantly diminish the efforts of their fellow actors and the effects of an otherwise solid production.
Salter is positively charming as Lewis. He finds a great deal of humanity and almost as much humor in his character's utter emotional ineptitude. The anger he expresses toward a God he loves and trusts but cannot begin to understand manifests itself like a swift kick in the groin. Salter is careful not to ever allow his Lewis to become too anti-God. Though he may have been flummoxed by the Almighty's mysterious movings, and though the script suggests that God is, perhaps, an enemy to man, the Christian writer's faith never once faltered. Rightly, Salter's most furiously delivered lines, which are taken almost directly from an essay titled Grief Observed, are at most the complaints of a child who cannot understand his parents' punishments. Tracie Hansom is no less moving as Lewis' beloved wife Joy. She is heart-breakingly understated in a role that could just as easily have been rendered as an overwrought pity party. The genuine surprise she expresses when she discovers that she can hold her own among England's more caustic wits is priceless, and when the character grows ill, the actress chooses to display strength over frailty.
Director Joey Watson has done a fine job steering his actors through an extremely delicate script. It's too bad he couldn't get his actors to all speak the same language.
Shawdowlands at the Germantown Community Theatre through May 6th.