By Jacqueline McGarry
What would you ask your favorite classic author if you could get just a few hours with him?
David Payne’s one-man show “An Evening with C.S. Lewis” adopts this concept. Anyone lucky enough to attend one of the six performances at The Playhouse At Westport Plaza was treated to a scintillating performance that travels outside the boundaries of a mere piece of entertainment.
Payne’s work here is unique in that it comes out less like a performance and more like a casual conversation with new friends. He does not demand our acceptance of his portrayal of the great author, he simply reclines in his cozy chair, offers us some tea, and allows us to cogitate on the idea as he muses casually about a remarkable life lived.
Before we know what has happened, we are entranced by this charming human, hanging on his every word. It is as if we are children listening to old war stories by Uncle or Grandpa. None of it is an accident. Payne knows how to win over his audience, and, more importantly, he knows Lewis.
Clive Staples Lewis (1898 – 1963) wrote 30 books, including fictional work about Christianity and the fantasy series “The Chronicles of Narnia.” He was also an academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, broadcaster and lecturer, and held academic positions at both Oxford University and Cambridge University.
The amount of research that went into this role is undeniable, although it is assumed that there is an embellishment or two. As we grow accustomed to the idea that we have been warmly invited in to the home of the real father of Narnia himself, we are treated to stories of an extraordinary life. These stories are delivered with dry humor and are rich with wit.
Each story that is shared is a precious jewel that reveals a man plagued by a life of grief, losing both important women in his life too soon. A childhood is painted in our minds of a beautiful British countryside and a boy fascinated with words, but confused about God.
Lewis’ feelings about God, at least according to this performance, were much more complicated than many might know. It is a pleasure to be allowed to learn such secrets, and delivered with such gorgeous phrasing that all lovers of great writing will sigh happily over:
“My perception of God was that he was rather like someone who never answered your letters.”
The time period is in the 1960s, three years after Lewis’ wife Joy has passed. His story of meeting her, loving her, and losing her is tender and raw. It is not a typical story of love and loss.
He also relays anecdotes about his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. A hilarious tale about an encounter with poet T.S. Eliot is also told. For any other bibliophiles, this show is a delight simply for these moments and the pictures they paint.
Very exciting, also, is the possibility that St. Louis may be graced with yet another performance in the future by Payne, this time delving further into the Lewis/Tolkien dynamic. According to Payne, this is already about to debut in New York. (At the end of the evening, he did hint that it would eventually find its way here. Fingers crossed, St. Louis!)
With such a perfect role based on a larger-than-life writer, Payne will not run out of material any time soon.
“An Evening with C.S. Lewis” was performed May 17 – 20 at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza in St. Louis.