In solo show, actor David Payne finds the humor and sadness of C.S. Lewis
The one-man anecdotal show, set in 1963, delves into the life of the prolific author, poet and profound Christian apologist.
It’s been said an actor is sometimes born to play the role.
That just might be the case for David Payne, who turned his devout interest in author C.S. Lewis into a one-man theatrical production, “An Evening with C.S. Lewis,” which arrives at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place on Tuesday night for a two-week run. After a chat with Payne, it’s clear the show is not so much a characterization, but an embodiment.
‘An Evening with C.S. Lewis’
When: Oct. 22-Nov. 3
Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chesnut
At age 17, the London-born Payne was given a copy of Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” which changed the trajectory of his life. Slowly, Payne began to read up on the author’s works, including the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, and eventually landed the role of Lewis in a community theater production of “Shadowlands” in America.
Call it six degrees of separation from Lewis.
A structural engineer by trade, Payne said those series of events ultimately led to his penning the one-man anecdotal show, set in 1963, in which he portrays the prolific author, poet and profound Christian apologist. Payne, too, is a devout Christian, still another link to his stage alter ego.
“I got involved with Christian youth work and heavily involved in the church as I grew older and it led me to play bass guitar in a Christian youth band,” Payne said. He also went on to become the managing director for the oldest religious publishing company in England (formed in the 18th century). It was while subsequently working in marketing for a British religious music publishing company in Nashville that he saw an advertisement in a local paper which read: “Auditions for ‘Shadowlands,’ British accents a help.”
“Well, I’ve got a British accent, so I called them,” said Payne, with a chuckle. “This is where serendipity steps in: The auditions were that night, so if I’d not seen the advertisement, you and I would not be talking.”
After his run in “Shadowlands,” Payne returned to England to visit the University of Oxford where Lewis had once taught “because I’d just done a play about C.S. Lewis,” Payne said chuckling. He immersed himself in Lewis’ world, adding one more layer to his understanding of the author, who died at age 64 in 1963.
“Once you start studying a character as I did for, firstly for ‘Shadowlands’ and then more intensely for ‘An Evening with C.S. Lewis,’ you do identify with him in certain ways,” Payne said. “Of course as I always say, he was an intellectual, I am not. He was a great writer. I am not. But he was human [laughs] and I am human so we have that in common.”
During “Shadowlands,” Payne said the show’s director gave him a copy of Lewis’ “A Grief Observed,” written after the passing of the author’s wife, Joy Gresham, in 1960. “I learned much of his relationship with his wife. I memorized the book, and I have no idea why. Until one day someone asked me what I planned to do with all the memorization and I said. ‘I think it needs an audience.’ ”
Payne went on to perform excerpts from the book “in people’s parlors,” eventually getting permission to do a play based on the book. The show is, according to Payne, a “fireside chat with Lewis, who recounts his life through anecdotes.” Material for the show came from a deeper dive into all things Lewis — from his writings, biographical tomes and a friendship with the author’s stepson, Douglas Gresham.
“I do admire [Lewis] in so many ways,” Payne said. “Not that he was perfect by any means. He had his faults, like we all do. I loved ‘A Grief Observed’ because I loved his honesty in the writing. He was a very generous, very humorous man. He gave most of his royalties away. You can’t present an evening with C.S. Lewis without there being laughter as well as sadness. He became a Christian when he was 31 at Oxford, where he was an Oxford ‘don’ [lecturer], and where you kept your religion quiet. But Lewis didn’t do that. He wasn’t out to ram it down people’s throats, but on the other hand, he wasn’t, as the bible says, out to hide his light under a bushel.”
The passing of Payne’s wife, Marilyn, connected the two men on a very personal level.
“It’s nice to play a man who’s willing to bare his soul and be open and not put on a front,” Payne said, of Lewis’ account of his wife’s life and passing in “A Grief Observed.” “The story of his love affair with his wife, Joy, is a great story, which I incorporated into my show. Whenever you play a character, there are parts of that character’s life you’ve not personally been through. You have to, as an actor, try and feel it. So when I play Lewis talking about the death of his wife and how it threw him into turmoil, I used to play that as an actor trying to feel that pain. But when my wife died I was right there where was Lewis was, with the same emotions. There was another layer of authenticity that was there.”