“ SHADOWLANDS ” at the North Coast Repertory Theatre & “ MARVIN’S ROOM ” at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company
KPBS AIRDATE: February 1, 1995
To care for someone who’s sick and dying, to watch them slowly wither away, is to get a lesson in humility, dignity and love. In “Marvin’s Room” the story is fictional; in “Shadowlands,” it’s factual. Both highly acclaimed plays have as much to do with learning to love fully as with learning to die gracefully. Surprisingly, though the subjects may be maudlin, and the texts could tend toward sentimentality, both plays provide plenty of laughs.
Humor isn’t the main ingredient of William Nicholson’s “Shadowlands,” a story of late love, acquired, appreciated and lost. It’s the story of C.S. Lewis, Oxford don, literary scholar, science fiction and children’s author, Christian apologist and confirmed bachelor. He’s pretty clear on his concepts of heaven, hell and medieval love, until he meets Joy Davidman Gresham, a brash New York “Jewish Communist Christian” poet who sweeps into his life and teaches the scholar a thing or two. But just as Lewis recognizes what he’s found in her, she succumbs to cancer. And he really learns about heaven and hell.
Although choppily constructed, originally written as a British TV film ten years ago, then converted to a successful stage play and screenplay, “Shadowlands” is articulate and moving. It definitely evokes a tear or two. But North Coast Repertory Theatre artistic director Olive Blakistone hasn’t over-emphasized the sentimentality, and her excellent lead actors are in no way excessive.
Peter Rose, a native Brit, maintains that classic English reserve almost till the end. Devorah masterfully manages not to overshadow Joy’s dynamic sensitivity with too much New York dialect or bombast. We see multiple layers and shades of both characters. Joe Nesnow also does a very credible job with Warnie, Lewis’ sweet but sarcastic bachelor brother. The rest of the supporting cast is less convincing. Marty Burnett’s stained glass, chapel-like set provides the perfect backdrop for a powerful and understated production.
Meanwhile, downtown, in a welcome return from a long hiatus, the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company is presenting an unfocused production of an unfocused play. Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room” is a black comedy about a bunch of serious topics. It caroms precariously between the ludicrous and the deadly somber.
Rosina Reynolds’ direction only heightens the pinball effect, with the addition of goofy stage business that renders the humor too broad and burlesque and the solemnity too melodramatic. Rather than seeing a disparate and dysfunctional family come together and grow in the face of illness and impending death, we feel as if we’re watching Aunt Ruth’s beloved soap opera.
Bessie is the saintly centerpiece who has devoted her life to her dying father and ailing aunt. When she is diagnosed with cancer, her estranged sister and her two troubled sons make the trip to the flamingo-pink Florida family home. In this cartoonish world, everyone is a caricature: the fumbling, anomic doctor, the doddering aunt, the bitch of a sister. Only Forrest Blackburn, as the angry arsonist adolescent, is believable, although Rebecca Nachison does bring depth to Bessie.
The sum is more silly than absurdist. Coming out of the AIDS experience, written by a 32 year-old who was both a caregiver and a victim, the play needs to paint a cogent picture. Here, the brushstrokes are so broad that all we see is a great wash of garish color, not any characters or situations we care about.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.