The disciple Paul converted to Christianity after being knocked off his horse by a shaft of light, and hearing a voice say, “Saul, why dost thou persecute Me?” The conversion of Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis took longer, and was a little quieter. “When we [his brother Warnie and himself] set out [by motorcycle to the Whipsnade Zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”
But what would make someone comfortable and well-fortified in his atheism and materialism, which explained why his beloved mother died of cancer when he was only fourteen, reexamine his core beliefs at the age of 33? The idea that there could be an all-powerful God who could read his private thoughts and interfere with his most intimate business seemed not only wrong to Lewis, but offensive. His materialism appealed not only to his reason, but to his ego as well.
The Most Reluctant Convert, the most recent exploration of Lewis’ life and writings brought to Washington by the Fellowship for Performing Arts, takes us on his moral and philosophical journey but also gives us a picture of his everyday life. Like Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight and Will Rogers’ USA by the late James Whitmore, The Most Reluctant Convert is a one-actor show in which the principal, in (approximately) his late fifties and the fullness of his powers, looks back indulgently on his youthful self.
In this instance, Lewis (Max McLean), owlish and donnish and sucking on a long-stemmed pipe, appears in the center of his Oxford study, standing in front of his armchair with his desk to his right and a well -appointed sideboard to his left. He looks like Lewis (Tommy Kurzman does the makeup design and Tom Watson does the wig), and he sounds enough like Lewis to sell the presentation. (Lewis had a drawl — you can hear it on this audiotape — which would grate on the American ear over the play’s full hour-and-a-quarter presentation.) We see a spray of stars and a huge full moon through the enormous picture window, as Lewis explains his struggle with his concept of God against a backdrop of the vastness of the universe. As he does, the walls disappear, and we are alone with Lewis and the indifferent stars. (Rocco DiSanti does the fine projections.)
Things lighten up; we are watching the rolling English countryside outside the Oxford Don’s window. He chats about his bubbly mother and his hyperbolic solicitor father; and as he describes them their pictures magnify, so we can put a face to them. He mentions the men who had influence him: his hard-edged tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick; the mystic Irish poet William Butler Years (who generated Lewis’ interest in the occult); his close friend and colleague JRR Tolkien; the influential Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton; and especially George MacDonald, whose Phantastes had a lasting effect on Lewis. As McLean’s Lewis describes (but never impersonates) each, his picture expands and contracts in its turn.
This is not, however, the life of Lewis. You could not tell from The Most Reluctant Convert that Lewis was an Irishman, born in Belfast, and that when he first came to England he roundly hated the place. Although Lewis occasionally refers to himself as “Jack”, you will have to go elsewhere to learn that at the age of seven he renamed himself after his dog, who had been killed by an auto. There is not a syllable about his romantic life — not a mention of his wife, Joy Davidson (their relationship is the subject of the excellent movie “Shadowlands”) or of his relationship with Jane Moore, the older woman with whom Lewis lived for many years.
C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert
closes May 14, 2016
Details and tickets
McLean, who adapted the text principally from Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy and his Collected Letters, is after bigger game, and he tracks it down thoroughly. Not surprisingly for an Oxford Don, Lewis’ most pronounced weakness is pride. It was ego which kept him from the thought that there was an all-powerful being who could see him as he really was, although, to be fair, ego also played a role in getting him to shed his belief in materialism — he could not abide the thought that his insightful and reasoned discourse was merely the product of the random movement of electrical impulses through some fatty tissue in his skull.
For this presentation, McLean sits and stands; occasionally talking as he paces from one side of the stage to the other; stopping at the sideboard and pouring himself a Cognac. It will not be mistaken for an action-adventure, but like most other one-actor shows, The Most Reluctant Convert‘s excitement is in the ideas, and the words. McLean gives us Lewis’ honest voice as he struggles with his pride, and by the time he comes to realize what really is immortal it is, notwithstanding Lewis’ dispassion, moving.
C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert . Produced by the Fellowship of Performing Arts at the Lansburgh Theatre . Adapted from the writings of C.S. Lewis by Max McLean . Co-directed by Ken Denison and Max McLean . Featuring Max McLean . Scenic design by Kelly James Tighe . costume design by Michael Bevins . lighting design by Geoffrey D. Fishburn . sound design by Ken Goodwin . Projections by Rocco DiSanti . Wig design by Tom Watson . Makeup design by Tommy Kurzman . production stage manager Lew Mead . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.