Capsule Stage Reviews: April 9, 2015

Shadowlands Not since Barbara Stanwyck, as self-sacrificing mother Stella Dallas (1937), who peered into that upper-crust window to see her daughter finally find happiness, has there been such a weepie as William Nicholson's love story Shadowlands. Perhaps Erich Segal's Love Story, the curse of the early '70s, might be next, with impossibly smug Ryan O'Neal climbing into impossible actress Ali MacGraw's sickbed, finding then losing love due to terminal illness. But Shadowlands (1989) has an impeccable pedigree, a love story with weighty, theological overtones. The somewhat true story of middle-aged C.S. Lewis (Steven Fenley), the 20th century's most unapologetic adherent of Christianity, who finds love with feisty American Jewish convert Joy Gresham (Lisa Thomas-Morrison), only to lose her to incurable bone cancer. Enduring such a loss, he finds his faith sorely tested as never before. This is a tearjerker for the middle-aged smart set. Even faded intellectuals deserve a good cry. Bring a box of Kleenex, for not even the rocked-ribbed and steel-riveted will go unaffected. Nicholson's adaptation of his own TV drama hits all the hallmarks in inducing tears. Lewis, known to his friends as Jack, is a confirmed bachelor, a stuffy Oxford don, a successful writer of children's lit (The Chronicles of Narnia series) and, emotionally repressed, a piece of stone. An unrepentant Christian, he lays the groundwork by asking, foremost, Why would God, a god of love and compassion, allow us to suffer? His answer is dry and pedantic: He gives us pain to forge, or sculpt, us into the better nature we will become when this life — the shadowlands — is left behind and real life begins. Lewis's lecture is intelligent, witty, forceful, but it's all empty exercise. He debates without expertise, without experience, in the real world. That's what Joy – what a marvelously ironic name – will give him. With her indomitable life force, she opens him up, revealing the fallible, loving human being inside. This hard man, this man of intellect and debate but of abiding faith, will be softened by love. The walls he's erected to protect himself through the years will shatter under love's power. Then, as if mocking his very core, his heart will be shattered, too, when Joy is taken from him. Although framed as the ultimate test of faith, Shadowlands is the story of an emotionally stunted man finding happiness, only to have it snatched away while he's still giddy from the discovery. It's a classic of its kind. Under the fluid and insightful direction of Rachel Mattox, Shadowlands packs an emotional wallop. One of Country Playhouse's most elegant productions in seasons, the play is swathed in numerous heart-stopping touches: a beautiful design concept by Trey Otis (those bookcases that glide in and out to reveal each new scene, with that evocative wardrobe center stage à la Narnia and the golden apple tree seen through the window); an evocative soundscape (by Fenley) that is cinematic in its effectiveness; aptly perfect costumes by Claremarie Verheyen; dramatically effective lighting by Eric Marsh; and an amazingly adroit cast that draws us ever deeper into the story even though we know exactly where it's headed. They make each revelation fresh, sparkling, alive with meaning. Fenley's a quiet revelation as Lewis. He holds his own against the prigs at Oxford (Alan Hall is quite remarkable as misogynist Riley, as is Ted Doolittle as Lewis's bachelor brother Warnie) but doesn't seem to convince himself of woman's worth until intrigued by the letters from Joy. Once he meets her, however, his entire world changes. With Fenley, you watch as Lewis's shell cracks under her warmth and persistence, and his final scenes are masterfully handled between pain, knowledge, and terrible acceptance. It's not a showy performance, but, my, it is deep and true. Thomas-Morrison shines as prickly, combative Joy, even though her character is not as rich nor as deeply plumbed by Nicholson. Nevertheless, she's an admirable foil for hostile Riley and able to win over Warnie by force of personality. She's so no-nonsense, clear-thinking and pure of spirit, it's no wonder Lewis succumbs. So do we. Nicholson's drama might aspire to be the ultimate test of faith, but it really says, quite plainly, Live completely in the moment and never stop yourself from falling in love. Whatever pain that causes, it ultimately proves you're alive. Any religion on earth would champion that. Through April 12. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Road, 281-583-7573. — DLG

Surprising God Originally called Parables Onstage, Jeannette Clift George's two one-acters, The Gospel According to Jessica and Right Here in Ivy Hollow, have been given a brand-new title for this revival at A.D. Players, but underneath, everything's still the same. These minor works are okay for Sunday-school lessons, but as theater pieces they come up surprisingly short. I'm at a loss to explain exactly what lessons they teach. Feather-weight and fairly obvious, George's plays give the company's actors a range of characters, especially in Hollow, in which the four actors play multiple characters, who exit, quickly change costume and enter as someone else, but the overall effect of both plays strikes a small-scale tone in relevance...and reverence. Jessica works best as drama. Discouraged by meager attendance and an unconcerned congregation — one longtime parishioner wants him to recommend an "older" minister to perform her daughter's wedding — St. Jude's new pastor, Mitchell (Chip Simmons), feels that his calling has been in vain. How can he get through to his flock if they don't show up? Into his office walks prickly, antagonistic Jessica (Katherine Hatcher), worldly yet lost, homeless and looking for a place to crash and something to eat. Impressed by his sermon and what she perceives as his having all the answers, she nevertheless confronts him on God's purpose. Mitchell's too polite to ask this truculent young woman to leave, but her sparring match spurs his dampened faith. In a bloodless debate, these two go at it. She challenges, he responds; he parries, she thrusts. While this goes on, Mitchell's sweet secretary (Patty Tuel Bailey), a real church lady of the provincial kind, offers Jessica no-nonsense advice, along with a place to stay and perhaps hope of a job. The questioning and questing are schematic, didactic and never truly believable. Simmons provides enough abiding strength for Mitchell to hold his own against this disagreeable young woman, while Hatcher displays Jessica's underlying vulnerability hidden behind very sharp edges. For all the back-and-forth, it's practical Bailey, shuffling in with coffee, fruit and kindness, who grounds the action and makes it personal and a little real. I'm at a complete loss as to what Hollow tries to say, parable or not. It's set in a general store in Cleveland, Tennessee, where small-town life comes and goes in a series of quaint portraits that seem to have no purpose. Part message center, travel agency and gift shop, the store is most definitely the place to be for gossip, especially if some new charismatic preacher has made a fleeting impression on the colorful inhabitants. Everything's so low-keyed, we don't know what's important: spoons or bookends for a wedding shower; the crazy old coot who fingers the silverware; salt-rising bread or black walnut fudge; the free car wash at the filling station; or whether that preacher has "the gift"? Everything plays on the same level. Excitement arrives when a Hollywood location scout and her loopy photographer seek out Cleveland for a possible movie shoot, but even this is downplayed as just another happenstance in this one-stoplight town. Full of little flourishes that don't add up, Hollow peters out. Without substance, religious or otherwise, the message is so opaque and odd, we don't know what to make of it. With Haley Hussey added to the trio from Jessica, the cast tries to breathe excitement into this homey sketch, but the characters remain ciphers. The play fades away as we watch. Again, it's Bailey who exudes some sense of purpose. She's perfectly "on," whether as neatnik Geraldine, proprietor of the general store, or the bag lady who pockets the spoons. She's a terrific presence, very much in the Thelma Ritter style, and we love her everyday sass. If only these plays had more of that. Through April 26. 2710 West Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover