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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

TRP's Shadowlands charms and saddens

Shadowlands
Dann Peterson and Jean Williamson
William Nicholson's witty and erudite Shadowlands is my sort of play. It drops audiences into the fusty and learned world of Oxford dons (professors) in 1930s England. It's all comfort, tweed and wry wit in the faculty room as middle-aged bachelors fence with each other's intellects over sherry. They banter back and forth about God and faith, intellect and emotion, suffering and pleasure, and they cite the shortcomings of women. At the heart of this group is famed Christian philosopher and medieval literature professor C.S. Lewis, author of "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Mere Christianity."

When American poet and mother Joy Gresham breezes into this dusty erudition, Lewis awakens from the certainties of theory into the unpredictabilities of reality. It's a fascinating journey, subtly drawn by Nicholson and interpreted in deeply felt acting by Dann Peterson as Lewis and with irreverent wisdom by Jean Williamson as Gresham.

Peterson looks the part of an ageing professor. Bespectacled and balding, his Lewis is confident in his beliefs and comfortable in the set routine of life with his brother. In the lecture hall, Lewis tells students that God gives us the gift of suffering to remind us that real life begins not in this world, but in the next. Shadowlands' great irony lies in Lewis's stepping beyond the insular world of academia to connect with Joy Gresham and to wrestle with the true nature of suffering. Almost against his will, he falls in love with her, and Peterson's investment in the ageing don's gargantuan struggle to accept the loss of Joy and to retain his shaken faith gives TRP's production affecting strength.

In an appealingly gawky interpretation, Jean Williamson's Joy is an energetic younger woman, who is direct and clear in that essentially American way. Joy is an avid reader of Lewis's work, and they have been writing to each other for some time. When she comes to England with her young son, she arranges to meet him in a tea shop. Lewis brings along Warnie (Thom Pinault,) his brother, for safety, but the unspoken attraction of two fine minds is immediate.

In one superbly timed exchange, Christopher, a fey don and intellectual snob nicely played by David Rinzema, condescends to Joy, saying, "Men have intellect; women have soul." Joy pauses, crosses the room to face Christopher directly and says, "Are you being offensive," pause, "or just plain stupid?" Christopher retreats like a smacked child and mutters to Lewis, "Should I call the police?"

Lewis secretly marries Joy to help the woman and her to son stay in England. Lewis assures his brother that it's just a "technical" marriage, but when Joy sickens with bone cancer, Lewis confronts his true feeling for her.

In Janice Stone's paced direction, Thom Pinault plays Warnie, Lewis's kindly brother, with quiet sympathy, and young Nichols Boyd is touching as Joy's nine-year-old son, Douglas. Michael Hoover's set and its props create a sense of English academia, and Dwight Larson's costumes evoke the period.

Theatre in the Round's strong production of Shadowlands entertained me with its wit and saddened me with its honest portrayal of emotional and intellectual struggle.

Shadowlands October 13 November 5, 2006. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m., Sunday matinees 2:00 p.m. Theatre in the Round Players, 245, Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $20. Call 612-333-2919 or www.TheatreintheRound.org.


Photo: copyright Act One, Too, Ltd


- Elizabeth Weir



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