NEW YORK—Nothing lasts forever. The happiness and satisfaction we experience may vanish and be replaced by a directly corresponding amount of pain and emptiness. William Nicholson draws this point in his stirring drama “Shadowlands,” based on a true story from the life of C.S. Lewis.
In 1950s England, C.S. Lewis (Daniel Gerroll) is a respected Oxford professor, lecturer, theologian, and author. Known as “Jack” to his friends, he is best known for his popular children’s books series “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
Jack is also a 50-something confirmed bachelor, sharing a house with his older brother, Warnie (John C. Vennema), and living a life of comfortable routine. He spends what free time he has discussing religion and the human condition with his fellow academicians.
Everything changes when Jack and Warnie receive an invitation to tea from Joy Davidman (Robin Abramson). A married American woman with a young son (Jacob Morrell), she and Jack have been engaged in written correspondence for some time. Her most recent letter informs Jack that she and her son, Douglas, are coming to England and would like to meet him.
Joy turns out to be brash, opinionated, and with little time for platitudes, shutting Jack down when he tries to dismiss a point of hers. He finds himself completely flummoxed in her presence.
But Joy, who is dealing with a failing marriage, finds her meeting with Jack a great panacea to what she has been going through back home, and she’s happy to see Jack getting along with Douglas. A lad of 8, the boy is totally in awe of the “Narnia” books, with a part of him desperately hoping the tales are true.
Some time later, Joy, now a divorcée, has moved herself and her son to a house in Oxford. She’s clearly interested in Jack as more than an intellectual friend. However, Jack, while definitely feeling something for the American, is hesitant to express his feelings or even admit them to himself. It takes an unexpected tragedy to make him realize how deeply he feels for her.
“Shadowlands” is a term Jack coined in one of his lectures to mean a place without sun, hence without life. It illustrates the importance of not wasting time when it comes to someone you care about, for when that time in the sun is gone, there is no getting it back. This premise serves as a stark reminder to and provides steadying resolve for both Lewis’s and Davidman’s characters as their story unfolds.
Playing out in conjunction with this concept is Jack’s deeply held faith. His idea that we are all part of a much bigger plan is used here as a sort of framing device, but it also helps him to keep his sanity, even as he finds himself questioning certain aspects of his beliefs.
Another important element of the play is the way love affects people, as well as those in their immediate orbit. A particularly nice touch is how many of those closest to Jack see the change in him after he meets Joy long before he himself does. One of Jack’s colleagues (Sean Gormley), who is not a particular fan of Joy, acknowledges how Jack changed for the better due to her influence.
Gerroll is excellent as Jack, a man who finds his ordered and precise world suddenly upended when he meets Joy. Gerroll realistically takes the character through a series of transformative moments, emerging as a more well-rounded individual than when we first meet him.
Abramson has the harder role as Joy, whose motives and manners are far less nuanced than Jack’s. In lesser hands, Joy could easily come across as a grasping woman looking for a lifeline. Fortunately, Abramson is able to give Joy a quiet dignity and deep-seated intelligence.
Vennema is endearing as Warnie, who comes to like Joy in spite of the upheaval she brings into his and Jack’s lives. Morrell is very good as Douglas, a young boy filled with the innocence of youth, and who hopes against hope that the pain of reality will not overtake him, at least not yet.
The only problems with the show can be found in Christa Scott-Reed’s direction. Some of the scenes don’t flow into one another as well as they should. (And it’s a bit disconcerting to see a stagehand moving about in the background to get the next scene ready while the current one is still playing.)
Presented by Fellowship for Performing Arts, “Shadowlands” is a tale about making the most of the time allotted to us and shows the importance of never taking for granted those we care about most.
Also in the cast are Dan Kremer, Daryll Heysham, Jacob H. Knoll, Jack McCarthy, and Stephanie Cozart.
410 W. 42nd St.
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or FPATheatre.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Jan. 7, 2018
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.