Atlanta actor and director Tom Key was first commissioned to create a performance based on the writings of C. S. Lewis back in 1977. It’s a part the actor has returned to on occasion throughout his career, and he has been getting rave reviews for just as long. Having just seen it for the first time in its current incarnation at Theatrical Outfit through June 29, it seems that this reviewer’s only responsibility is to add his voice to the overall and on-going chorus of praise that the show has received since it was first performed. If you’ve never seen it before, buy a ticket this weekend and go.
Lewis is best known nowadays as the author of the children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia, but he was a public intellectual in Britain and an Oxford don whose interests and publications were wide-ranging, often focusing on matters of spirituality, modernity and philosophy. Key imagines him as a self-deprecating, awkward but effortlessly charming humanist, one whom it’s a pleasure to pass an hour with.
A great writer works often in the hallowed halls of great ideas, but he can also spark energy and interest in dull rooms: Lewis’ writing about prosaic things — his childhood interest in fantasy, his schoolboy infatuation with the glamor of aristocracy, corporal punishment at his school — is among his liveliest, funniest and most touching.
God always seemed to be very much on Lewis’ mind, even during his years as an atheist; he stopped believing when he was 13 and then had a late-life conversion back to an ecumenical sort of Christianity. Lewis was understandably creeped out by the idea of God as a “Great Interferer,” an otherworldly, inescapable National Security Agency, able to listen in on every last fleeting notion, daydream and innermost thought.
Privacy isn’t a rare commodity for human beings in a world with an all-powerful God; it doesn’t exist. It’s somewhat related to his disappointment with reality, that the universe should be so difficult, grim and dull compared to the world of fantasy and books. All of it seems to speak of someone who wasn’t quite prepared to let religious ideas go in the first place, rather than a true nonbeliever: Lewis speaks of “traps” set by God to remind even nonbelievers of his presence, but the moment of actual conversion is left strangely vague in the performance. Lewis sets out on a journey to the zoo, an unbeliever at home, a believer when he arrives. Key’s Lewis doesn’t share the particulars (I presume this is the case in Lewis’ writing, as well), and it seems like a crucial omission.
He does describe his unwillingness to subscribe to modernity’s grim, godless notion of evolutionary human progress to some unspecified destination, but this is an aesthetic approach to ideas rather than a rational one. As Charles says to Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, “You can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea,” and this is true, as is the converse: you can’t reject ideas just because they’re not pretty.
Still, Lewis has a funny, idiosyncratic, skeptic-fantasist’s approach to belief that’s a joy to be immersed in, as with the performed sections of The Screwtape Letters in which an older demon gives a younger demon tips on how to capture modern souls or The Great Divorce in which Lewis imagines residents of Hell taking a trip by bus to Heaven.
Key as Lewis covers a lot of ground in an hour and a half: there’s some self-deprecating humor (Lewis jokes about his ungainly face), his schooldays, his experiences in World War I, the death of his mother, his love for a younger Jewish writer from America, even an awkward but charming search for a cup of tea. The performance is an opportunity for the audience to contemplate and share with an intellect that’s profoundly sympathetic, humanistic, witty, imaginative, searching and, in Key’s capable hands, alive. Key says in the program notes that performing as Lewis for so many years has been like a journey, an adventure, and this is perfectly understandable. How lucky we are that every so often we can share that journey and adventure with him.