For some reason English scholars seem to have a predilection for writing novels for young people. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, was a mathematician and Anglican deacon best known as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist immortalized by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And his friend, C.S. Lewis, was a medievalist and theologian beloved by children for The Chronicles of Narnia.
Sometimes these staid academics had rather extraordinary episodes in their lives. Carroll liked drawing and photographing nude children. Lewis had major relationships with two women: his deceased army buddy’s mother, Jane Moore,whom he lived with and cared for until she was hospitalized; and Joy Davidman, an American writer, a former Communist and a Jew who became an atheist and later converted to Christianity.
This relationship with Davidson became the basis of William Nicholson’s play, Shadowlands, now restaged at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre by Fellowship for Performing Arts. The original Broadway production starred Nigel Hawthorne as Lewis and Jane Alexander as Davidman, and the film, Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. This production, directed by Christa Scott-Reed, features Daniel Gerroll as Lewis and Robin Abramson as Davidman
The love story the play relates is unlikely but true. Davidman corresponded with Lewis before she separated from her alcoholic and abusive husband, novelist William Gresham, and came to England with her two sons [in the play, only one son, Douglas (John McCarthy or Jacob Morrell)]. They became friends and eventually were married in a civil ceremony so she could remain in the United Kingdom.
However, after Davidman was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer, the two realized their relationship went far beyond intellectual companionship. They were married in a religious ceremony by the Rev. Peter Bide (no easy feat as Davidman was divorced and according to the church not eligible for remarriage).
This might seem to have all the earmarks of a sentimental, even smarmy drama. But Shadowlands narrowly avoids this fate through the vivid contrast between the very rigid and formal Lewis and the very Jewish and extremely outspoken Davidman. If Abramson pushes her portrayal a bit too far into the realm of stereotype, Gerroll occasionally manages to surprise us with the depth of his feeling.
Best of all, the play is not infrequently quite funny. This is partly a function of the mismatched relationship but also due to the interactions of Lewis’s colleagues who take an ironic and jaded stance on most issues.
But in the end this is a romance, and a tragic one, onstage, the very best kind.
Shadowlands runs through Jan. 7 at the Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42 Street.
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or FPATheatre.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Jan. 7, 2018