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Jerry Earl Johnston: Play captures C.S. Lewis — warts and all

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Swallow the Sun Left to right,Matthew Davis as Hugo Dyson (top); David Dixon as J.R.R. Tolkien; Adam Stallard as C.S. "Jack" Lewis. Photo by Mahonri Stewart.

, Mahonri Stewart

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Among non-LDS religious writers whose words show up in talks at general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, C.S. Lewis undoubtedly leads the pack. Something in the old Anglican's voice and style seems to speak directly to the Mormon mind.

And for several nights recently, that voice was speaking to Mormons in the play "Swallow the Sun," a dramatic adaptation of Lewis' conversion to Christianity written by LDS playwright Mahonri Stewart and performed in the outdoor Castle Theatre just above the state hospital in Provo.

I caught the final performance there.

I'm glad I did.

The title of Stewart's play comes from a myth about a wolf eating the sun, but here the myth shows up in a line from Lewis during the final scene of the play.

"If you try to swallow the sun," Lewis explains to his brother Warnie, "it will just burn right through you. It will transform you."

This is a play built on the tension between spiritual and secular approaches to life. And the playwright pulls no punches. In the well-regarded biography of Lewis by A.N. Wilson, the biographer gives us the human side of Lewis — from the saucy jokes he shared with his fellows at the pub to the fact Lewis moved in with an older woman, Maureen Moore, and lived with her for years without bothering to get married.

To his credit, playwright Stewart doesn't gloss over such things but allows them to find their own level. He lets the audience decide what to think, while lobbying for us to dwell on Lewis' incredible insights into Christianity and the souls who choose to embrace it.

I liked the play very much.

Yet I liked even more the notion that writers and playwrights are no longer giving us "dual versions" of religious souls — one version where the subject can do no wrong and a "revisionist" version where he or she sins at every turn. Artists have finally begun to offer us fully fleshed out, rounded portraits of spiritual souls.

The biography of Quaker John Woolman, by Thomas P. Slaughter, and Richard Lyman Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith — "Rough Stone Rolling" — are two recent examples.

I left the Castle Theatre with a lot on my mind and lot to mull over, which is usually a sign that a dramatic production has done its work.

I think no less of Lewis because he could be self-indulgent and even two-faced at times. For in the vision of Lewis offered by Mahonri Stewart, Lewis seems to be a man who was constantly "striving" in the right direction.

I've come to relish that word "strive."

I seem I do it quite a bit. And it's always nice to know that others — like C.S. Lewis — spent their lives striving, at times with great achievement and at times with muddled results.

EMAIL: jerjohn@desnews.com

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