Review: ‘An Evening with C.S. Lewis’

Hannah Toriumi (left) as Sophie and Emjoy Gavino (as Hiro) in “Kentucky.”
(Photo by Claire Demo)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Broadway Playhouse
at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St.
When: through Nov. 3
Tickets: $70
Phone: 800-775-2000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If you’re looking for insights into the content and composition of “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Space Trilogy,” or other works by famous British author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, you’re likely to be a bit disappointed by “An Evening with C.S. Lewis,” the one-man show starring, written, and directed by David Payne.

But if you want to spend 90-or-so minutes with an avuncular raconteur who has an admirably dry sense of humor, be sure to head over to the Broadway Playhouse before the brief two-week run closes. You don’t even have to be a fan of Lewis’ work to enjoy it.

Payne has been channeling the author for more than 20 years in this show as well as others, and it’s apparent in how comfortably he inhabits the role. The conceit here is that he is welcoming a group of American writers to his home near Oxford, where he was a tutor for years (before going on to Cambridge). The year is 1963, which also is the year he died.

The first half of the performance revolves around Lewis’ biography, starting with a witty anecdote about why he adopted the name “Jack.” He also talks about his education, including at two contrasting boarding schools and his time at Oxford University, before going on to teach there. His experiences during World War I are as horrific as one would expect, with the silver lining that he survived being seriously wounded and was sent home.

Without being didactic, Lewis explains what he calls his “adolescent atheism” and how he came to convert to Christianity. His friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien (“The Hobbit,” “Lord of the Rings”) was a big influence, and he relates several amusing anecdotes about his fellow author. He also refers frequently to his beloved brother “Warnie” (Warren) who lives with him, has a taste for beer, and is expected home any minute to make the visitors “a cup of tea.”

The second half, which is more cohesive and moving, is devoted almost entirely to his relationship with the American writer Joy Gresham. It began with correspondence and evolved into friendship fueled by his admiration for her intellect. After she got out of a bad marriage and moved from New York to England with her two sons, they remained close, and when she was going to be deported for lack of a visa that was obtainable only by marriage to a British citizen, he suggested a marriage of convenience, and she consented, reluctantly at first.

But the really sweet-sad part of the story comes after that, and it’s a romantic tearjerker about love shadowed by mortality. The way Lewis processes the events and his grief eloquently illuminates his faith more than any lecture about religion could.

Peppering his account with a few relevant poems and mini impersonations of people in his life, Payne’s Lewis performs on a set adorned with bookshelves and a desk suggesting the writer’s study. He spends most of the time sitting in a high-backed leather easy chair, and the measure of his skill at storytelling is that we remain engrossed even though he isn’t moving around or gesticulating much.

If you haven’t read C.S. Lewis’s books already, “An Evening with C.S. Lewis” may make you want to.