Opposites attract in Appleseed’s romantic comedy-drama Shadowlands
By James MacKillop
From a distance, William Nicholson’s Shadowlands looks like three plays telescoped into one. The first is a drawing-room comedy where well-bred Oxford dons sit around and make witty conversation. Second is an unlikely middleaged romance between a 58-year-old confirmed bachelor and a 41-year-old divorcee. Third is a weepie, in which the beloved dies just as the romance is deepening. As the season opener from Appleseed Productions at the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave., Shadowlands may be all that but it aspires to be much more: to make sense of the senselessness of pain and suffering. To grasp the whole one must pay close attention to the opening speech, which tells us how to deal with the end.
Playwright Nicholson and director Sharee Lemos expect us to know something about the protagonist, Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1964), before we enter the theater, and many people do. Best-known today for his Chronicles of Narnia books, still being made into films, Lewis was a close pal of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), whom he also resembles. Both were erudite scholars with top appointments to Oxford, but both contributed mightily to popular culture. Both were also faithful Christians at a time when the intelligentsia was becoming increasingly secular, their beliefs subtly metamorphosed in their creations.
Lewis, further, was a Christian apologist with books like Surprised by Joy that have touched many lives. Unlike his American counterparts, Lewis traveled well with atheists and agnostics, who retained high regard for his intellectual penetration, candor and honesty. Lewis did not write Shadowlands but Nicholson incorporates his voice in the character of Jack (played by Tom Minion), the name by which Lewis was known in life. He hated being called Clive.
Despite not having a woman in his life, things were going swimmingly for Jack at the beginning of the action. Living with his brother Warnie (Bob Lamson), a retired major, assured steady good humor. A night’s entertaining in Oxford meant witty exchanges and genteel put-downs, especially if the subject turned to the philosophical dimensions of fornication. An outspoken atheist, Christopher Riley (David Simmons), gets in his licks, but the sole clergyman Harry Huntington (Edward Mastin) is not left behind. Audiences who remember Richard Attenborough’s 1993 film version of Shadowlands, with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, will be startled by the laughter these exchanges engender at Appleseed. Well, that’s how live theater beats the movies.
On the other hand, Shadowland’s origins in other media are its most serious liability. Nicholson wrote the first script as a television drama in 1985, later transposed it for the stage (which we see here), later becoming a vehicle for the cinema. Not all the action can fit. Navroz Dabu’s efficient sets give us a book-lined study at stage right and a restaurant simultaneously at stage left, but where to go for that offstage bedroom or the trip to Greece?
At the same time, all of Shadowland’s power is personal and intimate. Tom Minion’s Jack delivers more than half the show’s lines, and his subtle shifts of mood, from surprise to annoyance, incredulity to assurance and from indifference to passion, point to the direction the action is taking. This has to be because so much of the conflict is taking place in his mind, and he alone can find the resolution.
Into Jack’s comfortable life comes an unexpected admirer who is also a somewhat abrasive exotic. Joy Davidman Gresham (Binaifer Dabu) was born Jewish in New York City, and after digressions into atheism and Communism, has given herself to High Anglican Christianity, led there by Lewis’ books. She also has a 10-year-old son, Douglas (Kai Gesek), in tow. For the moment she’s content to live in her own digs and take lessons from the master when time allows. Never to be ignored, her presence begins to shape everyone’s relationship.
As contemporary Britain is now home to millions emigrating from the impoverished reaches of the former Empire, it is hard for us to reconstruct how the English of nearly 60 years ago were given mollywobbles by visiting Americans. Divided by the English language, as Shaw famously said, the Brits found us too direct and much too given to unwanted familiarity. They would expect even more of our failures if the visitors were Gothamites. So Joy presses their buttons. When asked how she finds England, she responds, “Cold and dull . . . and I don’t like the weather either.” Some of her barbs come with Borsch Belt phrasing, a la Fran Drescher or Barbra Streisand.
Director Lemos, whose heart is unmistakably deeply invested in this production, has given Joy’s presentation much thought. In casting Binaifer Dabu, Lemos has one of community theater’s most admired performers, the only woman around who could play both Lady Macbeth and R2D2 from Star Wars. Although born on the Indian subcontinent, Dabu’s been in the states long enough to speak with 99 percent of an American accent. So far, so good.
To have Dabu’s Joy speak with Jewish intonations on top of this forces an unbearable dilemma. however. If she’s good at it, audiences will wince at the impropriety. If she’s too heavy, Joy becomes a comic character. Joy’s incisive wit draws blood rather than guffaws. Far from being a clown, Dabu’s Joy is the immutable force that knocks an intellectual star out of his orbit. Meanwhile, Dabu’s dark good looks, so un-Anglo-Saxon, suffice to make her an “other” entering a confined, almost cloistered world.
Love between the self-sufficient Jack and the intruder Joy is anything but facile. At first marriage is only a civil charade to allow Joy papers to remain in the country. To underscore Lewis’ thesis that marriage is a sacrament, the civil ceremony is a heartless joke with an abrupt, callous magistrate, played by Robert Brophy, stealing the scene. Almost like some teen sex comedy with Drew Barrymore, the civil bond is supposed to be devoid of emotion, but Joy’s continual presence and her expressions of love, not just fandom, begin to have their sway. Well past the age of male menopause, Jack is unsure of how to respond until Joy’s advancing cancer shows him that responding wholehearted to her need is a huge component in what love means.
As a lover, Jack responds first with his heart at Joy’s unmerited suffering. With animal instinct, he’s angry at her fate, so soon in their relationship. It takes the union of his heart, head and faith for him to see that through suffering we let go of the ephemera of this world. It is, he says, God’s megaphone. This production runs through Sept. 24. See Times Table for information.