The Great Divorce is a story about the bus ride from Hell – literally: the Redemption Express from the bad section (there is no good section) of “the gray town” to the verdant fields of the much larger and denser Heaven. Like Sartre and Camus and also like Dante Alighieri, whose work this recalls, C.S. Lewis was a storyteller who was after bigger game: in this case, the redemption of the human soul.
In Max McLean’s and Brian Watkins’ adaptation of Lewis’ novel, the story opens as our nameless protagonist (at this point Joel Rainwater, but later in the play Michael Frederic and occasionally Christa Scott-Reed) is, for unknown reasons, standing in line in the rain, underneath a crepuscular sky, waiting for a bus. His fellow-ticketholders bicker unpleasantly, and peevishly leave the line and return home – a trip of thousands of miles for some – when they feel insulted. “I’d prefer Heaven for the climate and Hell for the company,” Mark Twain once said. Lewis obviously does not agree.
The bus levitates and soars, and soon it lands in Heaven, which looks like an unspoiled Irish meadow (Hell, on the other hand, looks like an industrial section of Detroit. Projection Designer Chris Kateff does a fine job of finding images which match Lewis’ description of absolute pain and absolute pleasure; periodically, though, Kateff throws in mystifying abstractions that distract from, rather than supplement, the story).
Upon landing and disembarking, the visitors from Hell run into some unpleasant surprises. For one thing, they find that they are as insubstantial as smoke, and the very blades of grass stick through their feet. (In keeping with the British practice of burying the dead without shoes, all of the characters are barefoot.) Also: everything in Heaven is incredibly dense, so that even the smallest apple can be moved only with immense effort.
Most importantly, they discover that the only way to leave Hell and enter Heaven – to “solidify” – is to abandon ego, renounce their attachments to their earthly accomplishments, and surrender themselves to God. Given this alternative, most of the visitors opt to take the return bus to Hell.
But the surrender of ego is everything to Lewis, and to The Great Divorce. (The title is a riposte to William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell”.) To Sartre, Hell was other people, but to Lewis, we provide our own Hells. The denizens of Hell who Lewis shows to us are not Hitler and Pol Pot; not serial killers or blackmailers; they are people not too different from us, whose narcissistic self-regard blinds them to others, to reality, and to God. Thus we have the artist who can’t wait to paint heaven in her signature style (Scott-Reed), the poet who blames his father for not giving him an allowance sufficient to foster his art (Rainwater), the shrew who wants to be reunited with her husband so that she can continue to reform him (Scott-Reed), the brutal, bullying boss (Rainwater) who cannot understand why he has a murderer (Frederic) as a spirit guide, a skeptic (Frederic, hilarious in this) who is convinced that Heaven is some kind of advertising scam, and, heartbreakingly, a mother whose grief for her dead son robs her of the ability to love anyone else (Scott-Reed).
Given the theological burden Lewis’ novel takes on, McLean’s and Watkins’ adaptation is surprisingly light on its feet. Wisely, they cut most of the lengthy theological discourses; while Lewis’ arguments about Calvinism and Universalism are interesting they would have distracted from the narrative.
Read more: Max McLean talks with Christopher Henley
Director Bill Castellino makes the denizens of Hell loud, aggressive, feisty and, at times, surpassingly funny, and it almost always works. I didn’t like Rainwater as the slickster who wanted to start a business importing produce from Heaven to Hell, in order to jump-start Hell’s economy and build a better sense of community, but in virtually every other instance Castellino’s break-neck style succeeds. These are people, after all, who hear no one else because their ears are full of their own voices. The three fine actors, jumping from character to character with the ease of acrobats, do full justice to Lewis’ text. Scott-Reed is devastating as the grief-stricken mother, but the ease with which she handles much different characters gives the true measure of her skill.
THE GREAT DIVORCE
Closes January 4, 2015
Fellowship for Performing Arts
at Lansburgh Theatre
450 7th Street NW
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $29 – $59
Dante had his Virgil, and so too Lewis gives George MacDonald (Frederic) to our protagonist (at this point, Rainwater) as his spirit guide. MacDonald was a Scottish theologian and fabulist who had a place of honor among the 19th-century British literati but he is not much remembered nowadays. As a theologian, he is principally known for his theory that Christ died not to save us from the punishment due to our sins, but from the sins themselves.
In this play, he trains his firepower on convincing our protagonist that once we land in Heaven, all of our past experiences, good and bad, will seem like occasions of bliss; and once we land in Hell, every joy will be blotted out in misery. It is a difficult argument, counterintuitive and abstract. In a novel, the reader can go back and forth over the text until it is clear, but in a play, we have only one shot at this message, and to the extent it is indecipherable we become disengaged. Unfortunately, much of MacDonald’s dialogue falls into this category. This is not Frederic’s fault, or the adapters (who excised a great deal of MacDonald’s dialogue in taking this story from novel to play), or even Lewis, who intended MacDonald’s lines to be read and mused over, rather than spoken. It remains, however, a problem.
Aside from these minor flaws, however, the text is funny and provocative, the performances are first-rate, and the technical work is spot-on. Obviously, not everyone who reads this review is a Christian, and although Lewis’ raison d’être, in this and other works, is to make Christianity plain to all, this meditation on good and evil, on virtue and vice, and, particularly, on smugness, will have value to practitioners of all religions, and of none.
The Great Divorce, adapted by Max McLean and Brian Watkins from a novel by the same name written by C.S. Lewis. Directed by Bill Castellino . Featuring Michael Frederic, Joel Rainwater and Christa Scott-Reed. Scenic design by Kelly James Tighe . Lighting design: Michael Gilliam . Costume design:Nicole Wee . Sound design and original compositions: John Gromada . Projection design: Chris Kateff. Lewis Mead was the technical supervisor and stage manager . Produced by Fellowship for Performing Arts . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
THE GREAT DIVORCE
Closes Jan 4
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post serious theological stuff is packaged into a tidy, brightly designed 90-minute show