Having successfully adapted C. S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters into a two-character play, Max McLean and his group Fellowship for Performing Arts have gone for an even bigger challenge: adapting Lewis’s The Great Divorce into a three-character play, now playing at the Lansburgh Theatre.
Part fantasy, part spiritual reflection, The Great Divorce (the title is a takeoff on William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) posits that the damned can take a bus trip from hell to heaven, to see if they want to stay there. The answer is not as obvious as you might think. Through a series of dialogues between the residents of hell and of heaven, the story explores age-old ideas about sin and redemption, and sets forth an intriguing premise: “All who are in hell choose it.”
Actors Michael Frederic, Joel Rainwater, and Christa Scott-Reed undertake the formidable task of bringing this often difficult work to life, playing 19 different characters in all. Performing on Kelly James Tighe’s simple but well-designed set—the grass alone, which pierces the visitors’ insubstantial feet, offers plenty of fodder for both physical comedy and dramatic effect—the three of them take turns narrating the action and playing various ghosts and spirits. Under Bill Castellino’s imaginative direction, the show has an eerie, dreamlike quality that serves the material well.
The format gives the talented actors lots to do, and each of them rises superbly to the challenge. Scott-Reed gives a particularly insightful, unnerving rendition of a ruthless social climber who drove her husband to a nervous breakdown, and whose idea of heaven is having him back under her thumb. Rainwater has a natural connection with the audience and a gift for commanding attention with the simplest of lines (“It will be dark presently”) or actions (striving mightily to lift an unexpectedly heavy apple). And Frederic stands out when he dons a tartan sash and Scottish accent to play the writer George MacDonald, whom Lewis considered a spiritual mentor and who serves as a guide to the bewildered narrator. Forced to put across some especially knotty theological ideas—for instance, telling a bereaved mother that she must learn to overcome her fierce possessiveness before she can see her son again—Frederic summons an air of wisdom and gentleness that softens the blow.
Chris Kateff’s projections help to translate some of Lewis’s more creative visions—such as a lizard that transforms into a stallion—to the stage; they’re bold and whimsical without going over the top. Nicole Wee’s costumes were mostly very good, with one exception: I found the white robes worn by the citizens of heaven a bit too reminiscent of Elvis’ Las Vegas period.
The adaptation, done by McLean and Brian Watkins, is excellent, streamlining Lewis’s tale without losing the depth and complexity of it. (In a post-show audience Q&A at the December 27, 2014 performance, McLean was asked about some scenes from the book that didn’t make it into the play; he speculated that at least one of them, about a bishop who had traveled from hell to meet an old colleague in heaven, might eventually be inserted). Only once or twice did I think the language could have used a bit of clarification or updating. But overall, the adapters have respected the audience enough not to try to dumb down the material, and the audience’s clear enthusiasm for the show indicates that they made the right choice.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Great Divorce plays through January 4, 2015, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online (Click on the performance date on the left). A 7-pm performance this Sunday night has been added.
Read an interview with Max McLean on DCTheatreScene.