If the middle-age romance of British author C.S. Lewis, a Christian theorist, and an American Jewish poet does not seem like material for a successful Broadway drama, think again.
William Nicholson's "Shadowlands" at the Brooks Atkinson Theater is one of the finest serious dramas to grace the American theater in several seasons.An import from London, it stars British actor Nigel Hawthorne as "Jack" Lewis (1898-1963) and American actress Jane Alexander as Joy Davidman.
Hawthorne, best known here as Sir Humphrey Appleby in the popular public television series, "Yes Minister," repeats his London success as Lewis, giving an entrancing portrait of the somewhat eccentric but lovable "confirmed" bachelor whose children's books, especially his "Chronicles of Narnia," have become world classics.
Hawthorne's Jack has a rumpled face that matches his baggy tweed jacket and corduroy trousers and a pair of fluted truffles for eyes. He has a crustily humorous way about him but it is perfectly obvious that he has a heart of gold that has eluded the heat of amorous emotion.
Jack is not a complete man but Hawthorne makes him a complete character.
Alexander may be miscast as Joy, who is 17 years Jack's junior, independent in her opinions, and astringent in voicing them. That is not to say she is not very good in the role, but the mysterious feminine quality that must have attracted Jack, whose books show a craving for feminine influence, is missing.
Jack, an Oxford don who shares a house with his dull but reliable brother, was 52 and a bachelor when he met Joy, a minor poet and admirer with whom he had a stimulating correspondence.
Their hesitant love affair lasted 10 years and included a civil marriage to provide Joy with British citizenship after she divorced her American husband and decided to live in England.
When Joy, a Christian convert, falls victim to bone cancer, Jack realizes the depth of his involvement and insists on a religious marriage, the only true nuptial in his eyes. Joy's decline is full of suffering and her death is trying to Jack's religious patience.
He wants to believe in a God of mercy but belatedly comes to see that God's plan is to make mortals seek him through pain.
"Her death taught him something that he had yet to learn," wrote Douglas Gresham, Joy's son by her first marriage, in a letter reprinted in the Playbill. "That in the very deepest despair there is hope and when by grief the universe is suddenly emptied, there is God."
"Shadowlands" is a sad, touching play but it is rich in humor and stirring in its depiction of a popular philosopher, renowned for his books "Allegory of Love" and "Mere Christianity," coping with feelings that have engaged him intellectually but have eluded his experience because of shyness in the company of women or sexual insecurity.
That he is a normal man who can fall in love and love passionately is such a revelation to Jack that we can only exult with him in his brief life with Joy (they lived together only three years). Her death is a loss felt deeply by the audience because he feels it so deeply, not because we are so enchanted with Joy as a woman.
In real life, the experience provided Lewis with his last book "A Grief Observed."
There are some notable characterizations by others in the cast, especially Michael Allison as Jack's laconic brother, Warnie, and Paul Sparrer's pessimistic professor. Mark Thompson's somewhat surreal set, dominated by a giant wardrobe reminding out of Lewis' most successful book, "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe," is effective and magically lit by John Michael Woodruff.
"Shadowlands" is one of television's rare contributions to the theater. TV screenwriter Nicholson originally wrote it as a one-hour television drama, aired in the United states in 1986, and expanded it for the stage. It is his first work for the theater.