Wit and intelligence are under attack in today. So is faith. And the idea of intelligence working in tandem with religious convictions are often at odds with one another. The argument could be that a great thinker with a worldview informed by science or reason could not possibly believe in an skyward invisible being that looks down on us and answers prayer.
At the same time, so-called faith-based entertainment – think films like “I Can Only Imagine,” the forthcoming “Paul: Apostle of Christ” or the stage musical Amazing Grace – while popular among certain segments of the population are often skewered by critics for being preachy or even treacly.
One stage production company is hoping to change the negative view of faith-based presentations and elevate the storytelling to higher level. The New York-based Fellowship of Performing Arts, founded in the early 1990s, has the stated mission of creating “theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience.” FPA produces a variety of titles and tours them all around the country to what appears to be appreciative audiences, judging from their current stop in Washington, DC.
Written and performed by FPA’s founder and artistic director (and multi-tasker extraordinaire) Max McLean, C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert places the Oxford academic and author of the Chronicles of Narnia centerstage for an 80 minute visit that passes most pleasantly. Lewis is now known as one of the world’s most influential theologians of the 20th century. But he was not always a renowned scholar of Christian thought. His journey from Materialism (atheism) to Christianity is the subject of this compelling one-person show.
With a vivid characterization and obvious reverence for the character, McLean is right at home on the stage Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theater, designed with great detail to look like Lewis’s study in Oxford by Kelly James Tighe. Cozy and lived in, decorated with years of bric-a-brac and family photos, it is a fitting atmosphere for a such a visit. Aiding the storytelling is a projected background that morphs from a beautiful, moonlit sky to scenes of Oxford and the back wall of the study. It also serves as a visual aid. When Lewis mentions key figures in his life, their photo emerges from the wall hangings. Perhaps an unnecessary effect, but for a moment the audience gets a glimpse, for example, of what Lewis’s parents and mentors looked like.
As Lewis, McLean addresses the audience like in an Oxfordian seminar class with the great man. Make-up and expert hair/wig design (Leah J. Loukas) allow the actor to disappear even more into character, along with a very expressive vocal instrument that balances both the humorous Lewis and the pensive Lewis, as he recounts his family background and key moments from his life and long journey to conversion. McLean, the writer, fashioned his text primarily from Lewis himself – his autobiography “Surprised by Joy,” “Collected Letters,” various essay collections – as well as selected biographies.
We meet Lewis in his Oxford study in 1950 – not only before his conversion, but not surprisingly before he wrote such works as “Mere Christianity,” the Narnia series, or the book which FPA has also adapted into a play,“The Screwtape Letters.” All of those books were either overtly or symbolically based in his faith journey and newfound beliefs. As the “reluctant convert,” we hear a more practical and, dare I say, a more cynical Lewis at the start. Not a scientist, but as a literary scholar, Lewis’s resistance to God was, as McLean explained in the post-show talkback, “his intellect defending against God.” Presented not just as a continuous, uninterrupted monologue, McLean has created smaller scenes, focusing on one story or strand of his conversion arc. It makes for a more interesting performance this way, aided by the atmospheric and evocative lighting design by Geoffrey D. Fishburn.
C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert
closes April 8, 2018
Details and tickets
This play certainly appeals to fans of Lewis – his humor and his theology are equally balanced with his early skepticism. If someone arrives at the theatre and does not know a lot about him, I will say McLean’s stirring snapshot of the man may spark more interest. But if you are expecting a great dramatic interpretation of famous passages from his theology, this is not your show. McLean is careful to build to the climactic point in time for Lewis’s surprising spiritual awakening: his moment of being born again, as some Christians term it.
I think this was a wise choice. For many theatregoers, skepticism or even rejection of traditional faith-based material is far more common. C.S. Lewis Onstage presents a man like many of us – one who questions not only organized religion but the idea of an omnipotent being. But it also shows how such a man could, with his wits and reason fully intact, could open not only his mind but his heart to spiritual growth.
My two minor caveats about this production are admittedly nitpicky, and by no means are meant to take away from the impact of the piece as a whole. That being said, there were moments in the play where I felt contrivance outweighed the natural flow of the staging. For example there were some transitions where McLean appeared to be rushing to get to a certain mark so a lighting cue would come off well, rather than being a natural point to ease into a new section. Secondly, there was an odd balance between the sound design (and often heavy-handed) and the actor’s vocal amplification, which caused McLean’s lines to fade in and out or be overpowered by music cues or other sounds. During the talkback, several audience members echoed my own frustration with the sound; McLean graciously accepted the critiques and assured the audience they would be addressed.
I come back to my first thoughts about reason and intellect versus faith and belief. Some people have no problem balancing these aspects of their thinking and feeling life. Still others of us – and yes, I confess I am one of the others – struggle to reconcile rational thought with our faith. It was sobering to hear that C.S. Lewis was at one time one of us. His journey makes for much food for thought.
C.S. Lewis Onstage . Written and performed by Max McLean . Scenic design by Kelly James Tighe . Lighting design by Geoffrey D. Fishburn . Original music and sound design by John Gromada . Projections by Rocco DiSanti . Stage manager: Lew Mead . Produced by Fellowship of Performing Artists . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.