C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, presented by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts at The Pearl Theatre on Theater Row, is imaginatively staged, chockfull of entertaining, artfully rendered bits of higher vaudeville, and by Jove, it makes theater goers think–about stuff that really matters! And it attempts to cosmically inspire us to lead better lives. What could be bad? It’s all a grand device for C. S. to lecture and lecture at us and–eh, sorry–that’s just not my cup of tea.
C. S. Lewis was a mid-20th century Oxbridgian scholar, a public intellectual, co-congregant of J. R. Tolkien, someone who thought and talked very seriously about Christianity, and wrote very fantastically about it, most famously in the Narnia series.
Adapted fleetly from his 1945 novel of the same name, the action in The Great Divorce centers around a bookish Lewis stand-in (Joel Rainwater, sustaining a terrified/overwhelmed tone) who, by way of a vivid waking dream, is transported through a tour of the afterlife and, thereby, a tour of Lewis’ views on how we all really ought to live. The eminently watchable Christa Scott-Reed and Michael Frederic deftly populate the tour, engagingly portraying some eighteen completely different characters, from “dese/dem/dose” working class types complete with lunch bucket to a Pfeiffer-esque range of preening, upper class types (or rather targets), as well as serene, evolved figures in long, white Star Trek outfits with commanding shoulder pads, bemusedly revealing The Truth to the ignorant former earthlings.
I’m not making fun. Or rather, C. S. Lewis and the FPA company are also in on the joke, parading human folly before us so that we may recognize parts of ourselves, reflect, and avoid being damned to constricted lives of self-absorption, even of the conventionally moral kind. We see the characters’ outrage and confusion when, in Lewis’ fantasy, they learn that their most precious beliefs and struggles are simply meaningless in the scope of What Really Matters in achieving spiritual fulfillment.
The actors are barefoot throughout, treading on a low, squishy hillock of AstroTurf. (Mere ghosts, we learn–repeatedly–find it terribly painful to walk on the spiky grass that penetrates their feet, whereas the more evolved beings are more dense and fully real, and can stride around on the verdure effortlessly.) Luscious video projections complete the cosmos, taking us on a compelling ride through Lewis’ imagination.
The Great Divorce is a companion piece of sorts to Lewis’ more famous 1942 work, the deliciously satiric Screwtape Letters. The FPA company serves that one up January 6-24 so you can complete your C. S. Lewis cosmology mini-course. The “divorce” in the title refers, not to a domestic situation, but to Lewis’ view that we too often separate ourselves from our higher, better selves and thereby lead lives that are hell on Earth, when we could do the opposite.
If you are a devotee of C. S. Lewis, you may well leave the theater inspired by his earnest spiritual fantasy and giddy over the fun of seeing it so fully realized. I am not particularly in that camp, and now half expect him to send a higher being to me from the next world to lecture me benignly for ninety minutes on my follies and limitations.
- Adapted by Max McLean and Brian Watkins
- Directed by Bill Castellino
- Cast includes: Christa Scott-Reed, Joel Rainwater, and Michael Frederic.
- The Pearl Theatre, Off-Broadway, New York
- Until 3 January 2016
- Review by Paul Meltzer
- 3 December 2015