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Daniel Gerroll and Robin Abramson




 By Eugene Paul



Playwright William Nicholson’s winningly romantic depiction of the love between lionized literary light C.S. Lewis and brave, brilliant poet Joy Gresham is being given a movingly  enlightened revival in director Christa Scott-Reed’s keenly observed production, thanks to wonderful performances, particularly by Daniel Gerroll as Lewis and Robin Abramson as Joy.  The rest of the cast is pretty stupendous, too, in this handsome, well knit show. Right from the beginning it raises ripples of ‘what-ifs” Nicholson had not changed a few vital factors in this true account in order to reveal the real truth, which of course, raises all sorts of other stimulating questions.


C.S. Lewis and his older brother, Warnie, had been teaching at Oxford, living happy bachelor lives – so far as they knew – for thirty years at their home, “The Kilns”  when complete anomaly Joy Gresham, an American admirer , came to tea. Which was an anomaly in itself, the tea, that is. Entertaining by the brothers consisted entirely of male Oxonians and their ilk. But Joy was a published poet, a brilliant correspondent C.S. enjoyed tremendously. So when Joy asked for the meeting  -- she was in England with her boys to find a British publisher – she seemed not only interesting but safe: married, two boys, a fellow writer.


She wowed ‘em. Witty, bright, maybe brighter than they were, attractive, blunt, charming.  And brief.  She left too soon.  At least for C.S., known to his intimates as Jack.  Jack wanted to see her again. Something he had never expressed before.  And for a married woman?   Brother Warnie  felt first fears.


John C. Vennema, Robin Abramson, Daniel Gerroll, Darryl Heysham, Stephanie  Cpzart  photos by Jeremy Daniel


It was months before she returned.  Correspondence had been a bit more fervid. Jack was delighted. This time Joy was back to stay. Her husband, Bill Gresham, himself a well known writer, was also a well known womanizer and drunk. They were divorcing. Joy needed a place for her and the boys to live. Most of all, Joy needed a friend. Jack was delighted. His friends were amused and wary.  The more Joy revealed about herself, the more delighted he became.  She was Helen Joy Davidman. She came from Polish parents who stopped being Orthodox Jews and became atheists.  She was an atheist vastly intrigued by Jack’s noted Catholic visions of life and religious heterodoxy.  Her boys were charmed by Jack’s great hit, his “Narnia” books. Lots of charming going around.  More worries for Warnie.


And here, an interpolation.  Nicholson, writing his play, knew that one young boy could be not only an appealing character, but a very useful one.  Two was a study in problems, developed and evolving.  He took the brave step of altering his manuscript.  One boy.  He was not altering the love story. And although you have now been introduced to two boys, you are now, a bit wiser, being introduced to a single son, nine year old Douglas, from the very beginning, and a happier playwright.


Daniel Gerroll, Robin Abramson, and Jack McCarthy


After a year, Joy’s English residency was not renewed.  She would have to go back to the States. Both she and Jack were distraught.  By this time, they were in love, much to the consternation of the Oxford friends.  And brother Warnie. Not that anyone had breathed a peep. Jack offered a civil marriage so that she could have permanent residency. Joy could stay.  Joy accepted. Only she and Jack knew they were wed.  And Warnie, sweet worried Warnie.  Where was he going to live? At his age?


With them, of course, Jack proposed.  And Joy and Douglas moved into the Lewis home.  When she became seriously ill, Jack insisted they have a religious marriage. Old friends-and clerics – turned away; she was a divorced woman.  Jack reached out of the faith.  Joy became Christian. They were wed. And Joy was diagnosed with a deadly cancer.


Turbulent as  events proved to all, more turbulent was the upheaval in Jack’s faith when love and tragedy struck in such short order, when Jack realized he had never known such happiness . When Jack had never known such pain.  Was this God’s doing? What kind of God? But C.S. Lewis not only observed his enormously grown understanding of human feelings, he mined it.  He recorded it.  He published it.  Ever on the world stage.


In director  Scott-Reed’s  handsome production, I particularly admired not only Daniel Gerroll and Robin Abramson but also John C. Vennema’s touchingly appealing Warnie, Sean Gormley’s upstaged Riley, Dan Kremer’s craven Reverend, as well as  the handsomeness of Kelly James Tighe’s efficient scenic design, Michael Bevins’s keenly observed costumes. A thoughtful, moving, engrossing pleasure.


Shadowlands. At the Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street.  Tickets: $30-$75. 212-239-6200. 2 hrs, 15 min. Thru Jan 20, 2018.