British actor David Payne has created an acting and writing career out of the works and life of British writer, C. S. Lewis. His flagship creation, “An Evening With C. S. Lewis” has returned to Chicago’s near north side, and Payne’s mastery of the character remains as strong as ever. His strong personal attachment to this enigmatic literary genius does not necessarily provide a thorough understanding of his literary life.
Payne’s association with C. S. Lewis has been long and career-defining. In 1996, he saw an audition posting in Nashville, Tennessee, for a production of William Nicholson’s play about C. S. Lewis, “Shadowlands”. The audition posting specified “British accents a help!”. Figuring his genuine British accent might get him a small part, he applied at the audition even though he had no acting experience. As fate would have it, he was cast—in the part of C. S. Lewis.
That began a career of writing, directing and playing C. S. Lewis for the stage that has produced several scripts and performances. For this evening with C. S. Lewis, Payne is the writer, director and sole performer, and so, the success of the evening is all on him. It is charming and engaging, but not terribly educational.
C. (Clive) S. (Staples) Lewis (1898-1963), was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but lived most of his life in Oxford as a faculty member. He wrote over 30 books that encompassed fiction, children’s fiction, theology and autobiography. We learn that from age ten, he preferred to be called “Jack,” but very little about his considerable literary output.
Much of act two in this 90-minute play is devoted to Lewis’ American wife, Joy Davidman Gresham. Payne writes compellingly about their cross-Atlantic correspondence, their first meetings and their brief four-year marriage before her death from cancer in 1960. These personal details are beautifully told, but there is almost nothing about her literary career, which was considerable, even as it terminated at age 45. That seems to be a constant problem here.
Payne’s script is set in 1962 and the “evening” is meeting with a group of American writers. What a great setting for lessons on a great writer’s literary career. But, what we get is a charming series of personal stories that tell us a good deal about the man, but little about the writer. Payne captures, C. S. Lewis, the man, but not the writer.
Final note—a year from this setting of this play, C. S. Lewis died on the same day as fellow British literary legend, Aldous Huxley. The reason the deaths of these two literary giants were barely noted at the time was not their fault. They died on November 22, 1963; the same day John F. Kennedy was killed.
“An Evening With C. S. Lewis” will continue at the Broadway Playhouse at 175 East Chestnut at Water Tower Place, just off Michigan Avenue. Performances continue until November 3. For further information go to Broadwayinchicago.com, or call—800-775-2000.