BWW Review: AN EVENING WITH C.S. LEWIS at Broadway Playhouse
In Broadway in Chicago and Emery Entertainment's AN EVENING WITH C.S. LEWIS, we encounter the famed author of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA in the cozy setting of his home in a village outside Oxford. David Payne writes, directs, and stars as Lewis, or "Jack" to his family, in this one-man show. Under the premise that the audience is a group of American writers visiting Lewis, Payne reclines in an armchair, sips tea, and regales his guests with tales of Jack's childhood, literary career, and late-in-life romance.
Act I attempts to cover much ground, beginning with Jack's early life in Belfast and his first great love and loss: his mother, who died of cancer when he was nine years old. Over the next 45 minutes or so, we catch glimpses of Jack suffering through a "Dickensian" boarding school, serving on the Western Front as a teen, beginning a teaching career at Oxford, discovering a shared passion for Norse mythology with fellow professor J.R.R. Tolkien, converting from atheism to Christianity, and writing his first Narnia novel.
This whirlwind tour pauses long enough to linger on some evocative memories, such as Lewis's description of his young imagination being awakened through the reading of "endless books." Although the material largely is drawn from Lewis's own autobiography, the episodic structure feels slightly rushed and disjointed on stage. For example, the play quickly passes over Lewis's brief yet formative experience in the First World War. On the other hand, Payne adds unnecessary sequences in which Jack wonders aloud why his brother, Warnie, is running late and hopes he will arrive in time to make tea for their American visitors.
In contrast, Act II mainly homes in on one story: Lewis's relationship with his wife, Joy, and their journey from friendship to a marriage of convenience and, finally, to deep love. Payne relates this sweet romance with tenderness and warmth, achieving some truly poignant moments, leavened with Lewis's dry humor and Joy's quick wit.
Of course, any sketch of Lewis's life would be incomplete without portraying his deep spiritual life, which heavily influenced all of his famous writings. The play recounts Tolkien's role in bringing him to believe that Christianity is "a true myth," follows Lewis's anger with God during times of grief, and ends with his hopeful anticipation of heaven. By maintaining a strictly personal approach, inspired by Lewis's own words, the play refrains from becoming overtly preachy. In fact, Lewis asserts that he hates the tendency of his religious readers to hail him as a "Christian apologist," quipping that a better description would be an "apology for a Christian."
Though it could benefit from some trimming and focus, AN EVENING WITH C.S. LEWIS should prove entertaining and informative for fans of the author. While certainly tailored to a niche audience, it's not without moments of wider appeal, particularly for those with a literary bent and anyone who enjoys a true love story.
AN EVENING WITH C.S. LEWIS plays through November 3 at Broadway in Chicago's Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut Street, Chicago, IL 60611. Tickets are available at 312.977.1700 or broadwayinchicago.com.
Photo credit: Aneesah Muhammad