Director Martin Charnin's reputation in the musical theatre world is well established, but here, directing the touching tale of the late in life romance between English author C.S. Lewis and American poet Joy Gresham, Charnin shows his masterful way with a straight play as well. Part of the success is through casting, amidst a strong ensemble, the sublime Dan Kremer as Lewis and Charnin's own later in life wife, the radiant Shelly Burch, as Gresham.
Nicholson's play is slow-moving, a character driven romantic drama in which Chronicles of Narnia author Lewis is touched and transformed through his friendship and ultimately his unique marriage to Gresham. She has left the U.S. and an abusive spouse with her stoic young son in tow, and finds warmth and comfort sharing her life and ultimately her battle against cancer, with the inveterate bachelor Lewis - despite the open disdain and ridicule of his friends at Oxford.
Kremer submerges himself in the role of C.S. Lewis and masterfully shows his slow and steady emergence into a warmer and more open man through his evolving relationship with Joy. Burch finds humor, passion and grace in Joy's every breath, and she and Kremer create a most believable and endearing odd-coupling. The actress is so stunningly attractive that perhaps a bit more could have been done to make her appear more frail in the hospital scenes; she simply looks too healthy and vital throughout to have a terminal illness.
Vivid supporting turns are offered, particularly by Clark Sandford, quite the adorable teddy bear as C.S. Lewis' elder brother Major W.H. "Warnie" Lewis who eventually accepts Joy; Mark Chamberlin as Lewis' most outspoken friend (and Gresham's harshest critic) Christopher Riley; and Robert Alan Barnett as the jovial yet judgmental Rev. Harry Harrington. Gary Taylor distinguishes himself in multiple roles, particularly as a rather comical waiter whom C.S. and Joy encounter on their honeymoon in Greece, and Kate Szyperski scores as both an obnoxious registrar and a kindly Nurse. In the role of Joy's serious-faced son Douglas, Haden Hutchison (who is double cast with Sam Tacher) comes off rather wooden at some key moments, but generally fares well.
Director Charnin's fluidly cinematic production concept fosters possibly the handsomest scenic design (by Matthew Smucker) to ever grace the Village Theatre mainstage. A wardrobe hints at being a path to Narnia, and the many settings, from Lewis' own digs to the hospital Joy spends much of her time in, are ideally realized, and enhanced by Tom Sturge's fine lighting design. Deborah Skorstad's mid-'50s era costumes are attractively understated, and Nick H. Venden's pleasing incidental music score adds depth and a sprightlier pace to the scenes.
All in all, Shadowlands proves to be the most satisfying straight play I have attended at Village in some 17 years. Go with someone you love, and keep some Kleenex at the ready!
Shadowlands runs through February 25, 2007 at Village Theatre, 303 Front Street in Issaquah, then moves to Everett Performing Arts Center from March 2–18, 2007. For more information go on-line at www.villagetheatre.org.