Last Thursday night, I was invited to a special media preview of the most recent production at the Las Cruces Community Theatre. “Shadowlands” is a play based on the friendship between the author C.S. Lewis and his American fan, Joy Gresham—whom he befriends and later marries.
Before going any further, I should reveal that I walked into the theater that night with several conflicting biases. For instance, I don’t care much for C.S. Lewis. I’ve never been a fan of his work, and felt that he was a little heavy-handed with the religious allegories. I also tend to gravitate toward more contemporary writers and writings. I’ve never really enjoyed period-pieces—which I feared this would be. In essence, “Shadowlands” in no way resembles my usual cup of tea.
On the other hand, I was invited to the play by a dear friend, who plays one of the lead roles in the production. That alone was the sole positive bias I possessed that night. In fact, I was so determined that I would dislike it, I nearly didn’t go at all.
I’m happy that I went. Within the first ten minutes, as the storyline began to unfold, all of those original detractions began to fall away, and soon I was lost in a very human love story, powerfully emotional and surprisingly funny. It was as if all of the labels I’d attached to Lewis throughout the years were peeled away, and all that remained was the man on the stage—vulnerable, nearly childlike.
In “Shadowlands,” Mike Cook, a veteran actor in the Las Cruces theater circuit, plays C.S. Lewis. His powerful performance reveals the writer as a complex man, struggling against a star-crossed romance amid a crisis of faith. Margie Brouhard plays Joy Gresham, a crass but lovable American whose strength transforms Lewis in unimaginable ways. Again, the complexity of these two characters is what propels the play; Cook and Brouhard reveal the cracks in the characters’ hard exteriors, allowing us to see through the defense mechanisms to their true vulnerabilities.
While the lead players and supporting cast all deliver dynamic performances, one actor truly steals the show—C. Mason Hooley. Hooley, a sixth-grader at Vista Middle School, plays Douglas, Joy Gresham’s son. In a narrative that runs parallel to Lewis’s life in many ways, the two seem cut from the same cloth. It’s a bond that culminates near the end of the play in a moment that will bring tears to your eyes.
The reason that “Shadowlands” succeeds so completely is because it speaks to the human condition—our propensity for building walls to conceal our weaknesses. Lewis hid behind his intellect and reason until those failed him. He then hid behind his faith. Gresham’s wall was her abrasiveness, her forwardness. She would advance until others began to retreat. This play is not about a British writer and his American fan; to characterize it that way would be reductive. “Shadowlands” is about two people as they attempt to scale the walls of self-preservation that the other has assembled. It’s about what happens when those walls are breached. It’s the most peculiar of love stories, delivered by a cast that’s adept to handle the most complicated and nuanced terrain.
“Shadowlands” is at the Las Cruces Community Theatre through February 19th. Showtimes are at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays, with matinees on Sundays at 2 p.m. You can make reservations or find out more at www.lcctnm.org.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 02/09/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012. All rights reserved.