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Shadowlands at Texas Rep: Enthralling Theater

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The setup:

The British writer and intellectual C.S. Lewis, a confirmed bachelor, finds love can come late in life, as he befriends and falls in love with the American poet Joy Gresham.

The execution:

Tall bookcases rise like cathedral spires on the handsome, flexible set, so many and so splendid that we know instantly we are to be exposed to thoughts equally lofty, and that we are in the world of academia. We are thrust into the comfortable, male-dominated world of Oxford in 1956, like visiting a men's club from which women are barred, and this world is dominated by C.S. Lewis with the strength of his personality, his intellectual vigor and his charm. Texas Rep's artistic director, Steven Fenley, plays Lewis, and his commanding, subtle portrayal grabs us by the throat and never lets go.

The power of his performance, coupled with talented supporting actors, creates authenticity and a fascinating glimpse into the life of a renowned novelist and defender of Christianity. Ted Doolittle plays Lewis's brother and housemate, Warnie, and is credible and interesting. Freeman Williams plays Professor Christopher Reilly, a nonbeliever who challenges Lewis's strongly held Christian beliefs, and he is a strong, effective, friendly antagonist. David Walker plays several roles well, and I especially liked him as a wedding registrar. Dave Maldonado, Reid Self and Kristin Lindner are good in supporting roles.

Beth Lazarou portrays poet and intellectual Gresham, with whom Lewis has corresponded but not met, and her intrusion in person clouds the smug camaraderie of the group. Playwright William Nicholson unfortunately has been less skilled in drawing her -- she is sketched rather than etched -- and the direction and performance have not been able to salvage this. Her confrontation with Professor Reilly, intended to reveal her as a worthy opponent, comes off as rude. Her discussion with Lewis after the honeymoon is intended to show her as his intellectual equal, but seems to be merely argumentative. Gresham has a young son, Douglas, a child, played with skill and endearing charm by Will Grant, but the playwright has given us no chance to see her love for her son.

While we are convinced of Lewis's deep love for her, we are not shown her love for Lewis -- if, indeed, that exists, for it's possible to see this as a one-sided love, with Joy simply an opportunist gulling an emotionally starved academic. Perhaps the coterie of friends was right in distrusting her. With the script shortchanging Joy, the actor must provide the warmth and charisma to bring her to radiant life, and Lazarou, though polished and attractive, doesn't rise to this level.

Lewis's struggle to reconcile God with the evils of the world is not much more than sophomoric -- theology-lite -- and a strong visual moment showing the power of magic undermines it further. But none of the flaws in the writing vitiate the sheer emotional power of this superb production, and the performances which enhance it. The set by Trey Otis is wonderful and permits smooth transitions, the costumes by Macy Perrone are authentically shabby, with mismatched jacket and trousers, and the lighting design by Daniel Polk is both subtle and appropriately persuasive. Rachel Mattox directs with the eye and pace of a true professional.

The verdict:

A compelling, nuanced performance by Steven Fenley, a gifted cast and an impressive production overcome minor script flaws to create enthralling theater with emotional power, making this both pleasurable and important -- a must-see event.

Shadowlands continues through February 19 at Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Road. For information or ticketing, please call 281-583-7573 or contact www.texreptheatre.org.

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