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The story of C.S. Lewis' fling with a younger woman fails to achieve lift-off 

Grief is in. Death is by no means taking a holiday from St. Louis stages. On the mournful heels of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, a widow's meditation on the sudden loss of her husband, which closed at the Rep last weekend, William Nicholson's Shadowlands, a fictional account of the doomed romance between middle-aged British novelist and scholar C.S. Lewis and one of his admirers, continues the theatrical dirge. Judging from the sniffles heard from playgoers on opening night, the timeworn disease-of-the-week genre is alive and well at Mustard Seed Theatre.

But there are significant differences between the two scripts. Magical Thinking is nonfiction, drawn from Didion's memoir of the same title. Shadowlands is also inspired by a memoir, Lewis' A Grief Observed. But here the story has been fictionalized. Lewis' unexpected autumn romance with Joy Gresham, an American seventeen years his junior, is more concoction than documentary. "No one knows exactly how and why they fell in love," playwright Nicholson once wrote. Nor does he show us, at least not in a convincing manner.

At the outset the play establishes Lewis' abstract universe. An Oxford don, he lectures about mysteries like love, pain and suffering while living an insular bachelor's life free of any feelings. (One of the production's mysteries is how director Deanna Jent persuaded fine actors like Charlie Barron and Terry Meddows to enact members of Lewis' inner circle when the roles are so vapid.) Soon enough Lewis learns that Gresham, an American with whom he has been corresponding, will be visiting England with her eight-year-old son. The ever-quixotic Joy (a former Communist, a former atheist) requests a meeting with the Great Man. Apparently the maxim that opposites attract is true, because before you can say "Narnia," the tepid Lewis and the quick-to-boil Gresham are soulmates. As she intrudes ever more deeply into his cloistered world, Lewis begins to experience love and pain at firsthand.

Gary Wayne Barker's rendering of Lewis is yet another beautifully etched creation. Barker's performances are always stitched from myriad details — the chin tucked into the neck, a slowly twisting hand, words that seem to be invented on the spot — yet there's never a sense of calculation, never a clue that Barker is aware of any of this minutiae. This is not acting; we are witnessing the accumulation of a life lived. And yet, although I left the theater once again humbled by Barker's natural gifts, I did not feel that I knew any more about Lewis than I did before the play began — except perhaps that he shared a house with his older brother Warnie, whose function here is to serve as the droll Colonel Pickering to Lewis' Henry Higgins ("let a woman in your life, and your serenity is through"). With a drooping mustache that matches his drooping eyebrows, Richard Lewis is a delight as Warnie. Any unspoken affection that emanated from the stage existed between the two brothers rather than man and wife.

Ultimately, one's enthusiasm (or even tolerance) for Shadowlands pivots on one's view of Gresham. As written, perhaps she is meant to be lovably quirky and original. But despite the admirable restraint in Kelley Ryan's portrayal, Joy comes across as joyless. And devious: Every time Gresham plaintively remarks, "I don't mean to burden you," you practically feel her knife plunging more deeply into Lewis' ribs. When she says of herself and her son, "We'll be no trouble at all," you know yet another galosh is about to drop.

So what are we to take from Shadowlands? The play's theme seems to be borrowed, not from anything Lewis wrote in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but rather from the celebrated sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "And if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death." But perhaps there's an even simpler moral than that: Celebrities should not respond to fan mail.

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