Review: ‘C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre

Believe it or not, this is one terrific piece of theater. It’s a one-man play about an influential, world-class thinker that’s every bit as smart, fascinating, and satisfying as the best such solo performances seen in this town. It bears comparison to the portrayals of Alexander Graham Bell (2013) and R. Buckminster Fuller (2010) by local acting legend Rick Foucheaux.

Max McLean as C.S, Lewis. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Max McLean as C.S, Lewis. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

What’s ingenious about C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert is that its plot is all about how the great thinker thought. Its most pivotal events are mental. And their dramatic momentum—how thought A prepared for thought B, which propelled realization C—amounts to some amazing moments on stage and in one’s own mind.

Max McLean performs impressively as C.S. Lewis (1898–1963), the British author and scholar  best known for his now mega-selling fantasy fiction (notably The Chronicles of Narnia) but also widely revered for his religious writings. A man given as much to rationality and intellectual rigor as he was enchanted by myths and the imagination, Lewis famously converted in his thirties from a secular worldview to a deeply personal belief in the incarnated God of Christianity. McLean—who adapted the succinct and scintillating script from a host of texts by the prolific Lewis—traces the path of that conversion, step by unexpected step.

The play is set in 1950 in Lewis’ study at Oxford—an academic position he was appointed to at age 26 and held until his death. To dramatize Lewis’ conversion, McLean zooms in on that point in Lewis’ life, which preceded the Narnia books as well his meeting Joy Davidman (a love story told the film Shadowland). The choice works perfectly.

With warmth and candor, McLean gives us a Lewis that immediately draws us in. (In the talkback after, McLean referred to Anthony Hopkins’ performance in Shadowland as “overly diffident, uncomfortable in his skin”—in marked contrast to the amiable and personable fellow we meet in McLean.)

Lewis begins by telling us of his boyhood, including the death of his beloved mother and his relationship with his demanding father, a verbally dexterous prosecutor who grilled his son like a hostile witness. As the boy tries to rise to the challenge, we see the emergence of his tough-minded intellect as well as his agile articulateness. A stint with a private mentor further cultivates Lewis’ command of literature, languages, and ideas.

Listening to this very personal voice from the past come alive through McLean’s excerpts from Lewis’ eloquent writings is a real reward of this production. Following the elegant sentences, delighting in fresh phrasings, savoring even the pauses—it’s not unlike the pleasure of hearing a monologue by a dramatist on the order of Kushner or dare I say Shakespeare.

The conversion story line begins with a religious upbringing that Lewis faked his way through out of fear of his father’s disapproval. Lewis’ disbelief turned into a form of atheism called materialism, the notion that the universe had no prime mover; it’s all just atoms caroming around in space. And then comes a mental plot twist: It dawns on Lewis that the mind cannot explain itself; that rationality, consciousness, and the like cannot possibly be the random result of atoms bouncing about; that “it must be more than biochemistry.” So then: bang, there must be God.

Max McLean as C.S. Lewis. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Max McLean as C.S. Lewis. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

We know going in how the play ends; the show’s promotion gives it away: C.S. Lewis,  erstwhile proponent of a godless universe, becomes a Christian. But how the play gets there is the intriguing thing.

Lewis shares with us several relevant encounters along the way, including an illuminating walk and talk with J.R.R. Tolkein (who was already Christian) and a particularly influential book of fantasy fiction he happened upon at age 16.

Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later, I knew that I had crossed a great frontier….

That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me not unnaturally took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.

This from a fantasy fanboy who was to grow up with an intellect and imagination whose unique interplay would entertain and inspire millions.

There are more revelations along Lewis’ revealing path. Among them is the strikingly phrased realization by this scholar of world mythology that “the Gospel story is a myth working on us like other myths, with one difference: it really happened.”

Max McLean mentioned in his talkback that C.S. Lewis Onstage had been workshopped in New York and that this engagement at the Lansburgh is its world premiere. As co-directed by Ken Denison and Max McLean, the production is superbly polished. Lewis ambles about in a professorial suit by Costume Designer Michael Bevins that is fitting because it doesn’t quite. Sitting or standing by an armchair center stage or crossing to a desk and bar on either side on a set by Scenic Designer Kelly James Tighe, Lewis is seen against a wonder range of animations by Projection Designer Rocco DiSanti that introduce us to personages in Lewis’ biography (as their portraits pop off the wall) and transport us from the study to grassy glens and beyond. Lighting Designer Geoffrey D. Fishburn shows us Lewis in fluid pools of light and scene-shift blackouts during which the impact of the prior scene can sink in. And Sound Designer Ken Goodwin frames each scene with beautiful strains of classical piano.

Whether or not this great thinker’s religious realization is anything like one’s own experience, thinking, or belief, purely as dramatic character arc, the conversion story in C.S. Lewis Onstage is captivating.

Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.


C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert plays through May 8, 2016, at Fellowship for Performing Arts performing at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the Shakespeare Theatre Company Box Office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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