Location, location, location. Where are we? In a dingy town or a radiant abyss? Earth? Hell? Heaven? Life? Death? "And terror whispered, 'This is no place for you.' " Anthony Lawton's masterful solo show,
The Great Divorce
, adapted from C.S. Lewis' allegorical novel, creates location after location - all on a gray stage, wearing gray clothes, with a gray face.
It begins, as many good stories do, on a dark and stormy night. A sensible-sounding man who has been walking endlessly but arriving nowhere joins a group of quarrelsome strangers waiting for a bus. The bus, not unlike E.M. Forster's
, is magical, flying through the air from this hell on Earth to a surprising heaven. The man meets a variety of ghosts, as well as giant angels who speak with Scottish accents.
The characters - from the whining, misunderstood poet to the self-righteous, husband-crushing wife, to the "plain man" who only wants "his rights," to the outraged cynic who sees the wonders of the world as a series of tourist traps, to the degenerate tormented by his own lustful inclination in the shape of a small red reptile - all come to life through Lawton's voice.
Much of what is remarkable about Lewis' story is the narrative detail: Life has been closely observed - birds, clouds, flowers, people's faces - and he can create spectacular images by painting with language on the mind's canvas. Each of us in the audience sees what we see according to our needs and our imaginations, from the unpluckable, diamond-hard daisy to the "man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air." Lewis' old-fashioned, very literary vocabulary springs to life, making us contemplate astronomical distances so great they "made the solar system itself seem an indoor affair."
Much of what is remarkable about Lawton's performance is the detail - the bend of a knee, the raising of an eyebrow, the roll of an R - all the theatrical shape-shifting actors do that becomes part of the larger point: The actor himself seems both more and less than corporeal, "a man-shaped stain," an individual human as well as the human condition.
Reprising his performance of 2006, Lawton clearly intends this as a show for the season: a deeply spiritual investigation into human behavior and moral responsibility. New Year's resolutions cubed.
But the play is entertaining as well as thought-provoking. Consider this adorable zinger: "Who will give me the words to express the terror of that discovery? Golly."
The difference between this performance and the one I saw two years ago (dimmed by time and cluttered memory) is that now it feels less optimistic, less an assertion of a redemption, of a person's capacity to learn from an epiphany, a revelatory dream, a philosophic inquiry. It seems merely to assert the necessity of self-renovation, not to declare the deal done.
Lewis, a philosopher best known for his allegorical
Chronicles of Narnia
books for children, was a convert from atheism to devout Christianity, which may be one of the many possible meanings of the title
The Great Divorce
St. Stephen's Theater,
10th and Ludlow Streets. Through Sunday. Tickets: $40. Information: 215-829-0395 or