The existence of evil has always been a dilemma for religious thinkers. If God exists and is good, why does he allow people to suffer? C.S. Lewis, the great academic, Christian apologist and author of the Narnia books, thought he had the answer. Pain, he reasoned, keeps us from growing content with this life, focusing our attentions instead on the next life—it is actually a gift from God. Lewis eventually saw this theory challenged in an especially painful way by the death of his wife, Joy Gresham.

William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, a fictionalization of the brief romance between Joy and Lewis, began life in 1985 as a BBC television movie before graduating to the stage in 1989. It later moved to Broadway and was made into a motion picture (also written by Nicholson), garnering several awards and nominations along the way. A production directed by Marilyn Langbehn is now being staged by Palo Alto Players.

In the play, C.S. Lewis (“Jack” to his friends, since he never liked the name “Clive”) finds his quiet bachelor life at Oxford disrupted by the appearance of his future wife, an American ex-Communist. Already acquainted as pen pals, the two quickly become close friends and are soon married, though just “technically,” so that Joy can remain in England. Only after she is stricken with cancer does Jack declare his love for her and his desire to marry her in earnest.

Whether his feelings are late blooming, or whether he was simply too inhibited to express what he always felt, seems open to interpretation. At any rate, his life is transformed: almost as soon as he learns to love, he is confronted with a terrible loss. His notion of pain as a gift provides no comfort in the face of this tragedy, and though he continues to assert his old beliefs, he doesn’t really seem to believe them anymore.

The two lead actors play their parts with warmth and dignity. Fred Sharkey is enjoyable and quite convincing as the reserved hero, while Trish Tillman as Joy provides good contrast as the brash, forward woman who offends Jack’s stodgy friends, including Rev. Harry Harrington (Kyle Green) and the caustic Christopher Riley (Michael Fay). John Anthony Nolan is a delight to watch as Jack’s stuffy yet likeable older brother, Major “Warnie” Lewis. It’s a great evening, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, but always captivating.

Palo Alto Players
Through Feb. 6
Lucie Stern Theater,
1305 Middlefield Road,
Palo Alto
Tickets $26–$30
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