‘An Evening With C.S. Lewis’ a chronically flawed chronicle of the author’s life

Oddly skipping over important subjects, the show is built for comfort rather than drama.

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In “An Evening With C.S. Lewis,” David Payne plays the “Chronicles of Narnia” author and recounts key moments of his life.

Victoria Jeffs

“An Evening with C.S. Lewis” is precisely what the title promises. Writer-director-performer David Payne’s one-man show features the playwright as Lewis, sitting in an armchair where he sips tea while delivering a monologue about his life.

Payne’s script is soft-spoken and gently entertaining, and Payne himself has a dry, understated manner that captures Lewis’ fierce wit. Still, the edges here are rounded, not sharp. Payne is marvelously Lewis-like, but this a show built for comfort rather than drama. The production offers fans of the famed author — whose more than 30 books include “The Screwtape Letters” and the beloved Narnia Chronicles — the next best thing to actually spending an evening with one of the giants of 20th century Western literature. Those who aren’t especially interested in Lewis aren’t apt to feel different when the curtain comes down.

Evening With CS Lewis

Untitled

‘An Evening with C.S. Lewis’

When: Through Nov. 3

Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut

Tickets: $70

Info: www.aneveningwithcslewis.com, (800) 775-2000

Run time: 90 minutes, plus one 20-minute intermission

Payne sets the monologue in 1963, and while he doesn’t mention it, the fact that Lewis died on Nov. 22 of that year hovers over the raconteur’s stories like the “mourning mist” Lewis experiences when his wife dies. The audience stands in for a group of American writers, gathered to hear Lewis talk about his life and work.

There are several missed opportunities. The Belfast-born Lewis was a child when he declared he didn’t believe in God. Serving in the trenches of World War I didn’t change that, but a 1929 trip to the zoo did. Payne gives only a brief, cryptic account of that life-changing conversion. We learn that it happened during a motorcycle ride to the zoo. When Lewis climbed into the sidecar for the trip, he was an atheist. When he got out, he was a theist. What caused the profound, life-altering shift is wholly unexplored. That’s frustrating, especially given how much Christianity played into Lewis’ writing. Many view “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” as a Christian allegory. Several of Lewis’ non-fiction books dealt overtly with Christianity.

Insight into the Narnia books —arguably Lewis’ most widely read — is similarly absent. Instead, Payne offers an anecdote about how he threw out the early pages of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” because his friend J.R.R. Tolkien deemed the story basically unreadable. Later, Lewis retrieved the pages, finished the book and sent it to his publisher. Some 69 years later, the young adult fantasy has yet to go out of print. Payne offers no clues as to what inspired the stunningly popular book, much less any observations on what its extraordinary worlds and vivid inhabitants were meant to represent.

We learn that Lewis was a fascinatingly precocious child, announcing he wished to be called “Jack” before he was 10. He was certain his real name Clive Staples would be an “impediment” to his endeavors later in life. (He chose Jack in memory of his dog, a creature with the dubious distinction of being the first canine in Northern Ireland to be run down by a motor car.) He devoured the many books in his parents’ home, understanding early that every new book represents a new adventure.

From there, the script moves to Lewis’ Dickensian English boarding school, the battles of World War I and the hallowed halls of English academia. We hear funny stories about Tolkien and T.S. Eliot, as well as a horribly sexist joke involving a thoroughly potted Winston Churchill telling off an “ugly” female Parliamentarian who criticized his public drunkenness. The last has little to do with Lewis, but it gets a big laugh.

Before breaking for an unnecessary intermission (the show is 90 minutes), Payne breaks character entirely to make a plea for donations to a charity that sponsors impoverished orphans around the world. It’s a compassionate cause, but it completely removes audiences from the world of C.S. Lewis. Once you’ve seen Payne as Payne, it’s much harder to see him as Lewis.

The second half of the script focuses on Lewis’ relationship with American poet Helen Joy Davidman. Lewis credits her as the love of his life, a master debater and a great conversationalist. He leaves unmentioned that she was also a writer of renown in her own right. Her ending is tragic, her written legacy unremarked on.

In the end, “An Evening with C.S. Lewis” is rather like watching a prolonged intro to an episode of “Masterpiece Theater.” It’s a forgettable show about a fascinating man.

Catey Sullivan is a Chicago freelance writer.

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