‘Shadowlands’: An exercise in staying true to the love story of C.S. Lewis and a poet

Charity Jones on playing Joy Davidman Gresham: "I was afraid that I wouldn't like her. I did quite a bit of research on her over the summer — and, wow, she's a tough one. But when I read her writing, I decided — hey, I like this lady."

Photo by Michal Daniel
Charity Jones on playing Joy Davidman Gresham: “I was afraid that I wouldn’t like her. I did quite a bit of research on her over the summer — and, wow, she’s a tough one. But when I read her writing, I decided — hey, I like this lady.”

Whenever a play or film is based on actual people or events, there’s always somebody who brings up the issue of whether it’s “factual.”

Expect this to happen with the Guthrie Theater’s upcoming production of “Shadowlands,” the play by William Nicholson that was inspired by the brief, bittersweet marriage of British writer C.S. Lewis and American poet Joy Davidman Gresham.

Charity Jones, who portrays Gresham in the Guthrie staging, admits to being a little apprehensive. In an acting career that spans about 30 years of Twin Cities theater history, Jones says she has never played a character that had a real biography.

“I was afraid that I wouldn’t like her,” Jones said. “I did quite a bit of research on her over the summer — and, wow, she’s a tough one.”

Of the two writers, Lewis is the better-known — if only as the author of the six Narnia books that many of us read to our kids, starting with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” He also was an intellectual, an Oxford don, and a celebrated Christian apologist whose reflective book about Gresham’s death from cancer, “Grief Observed,” is recommended frequently to people suffering personal loss.

Gresham, on the other hand, is familiar mostly to the more rarefied elements of American letters. Her poetry — she shared top-notch prizes with the likes of Robert Frost — and novels were overshadowed by radical political associations with the American Communist Party of the 1930s.

“She sort of fit the profile of an intellectual, Jewish, New York communist of that period,” Jones said. “Very aggressive, intolerant, self-assured and moralistic. At least, that’s how a lot of people described her.

“And she was difficult to like. But when I read her writing, I decided — hey, I like this lady. She has her own voice. And, besides, the person in the play is much more likeable than the person you get from reading about her.”

That, of course, goes to the question of authenticity.

Video: Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling discusses “Shadowlands.”

Playwright Nicholson wrote the original version of “Shadowlands” as a BBC television drama in the mid-1980s. He adapted it for the stage in 1989 then rewrote it again in 1993 for a three-hankie film that starred Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and Debra Winger as Gresham. The film won Oscar nominations for both Hopkins and Nicholson.

Faithful to the outline
The play hews to the essential outline of what happened in real life in the 1950s. Gresham, fleeing an estranged marriage that ironically prompted her to embrace Christianity, is taken in by “Jack” Lewis, a life-long bachelor and musty Oxford professor. A platonic friendship blooms into love, but their life together is cut short by illness and death.

Nicholson was quoted widely when the film came out about taking liberties with the facts. “I have used parts of their story, not used other parts and imagined the rest,” he said.

Fair enough. It brings to mind what the critic George Jean Nathan said about the relationship between art and truth. Art, Nathan once wrote, is not true — but one finds truth in art.

For Jones, “Shadowlands” is another notch in a long theatrical career that began when she and her twin sister, Felicity, were students at the Children’s Theatre Company school in the 1970s. Felicity eventually went to Macalester College and then joined the acting company at Theatre de la Jeune Lune.

Charity stayed at CTC as a resident company member until 1998 — in all, about 20 years, including her years as a student performer. During those two decades she performed in about 60 different productions at CTC. As lithe as a dancer, she excelled at playing strong-willed women — such as Jo in a memorable CTC production of “Little Women.” In fact, it’s easy to imagine her settling into the role of the assertive Gresham.

The two look-alike twins presented theater-goers with a conundrum. “People got very confused about us,” Charity recalled. “Some didn’t know we were two people. Sometimes I’d get asked, ‘How do you do so much?’ ”

Charity said her sister now lives in rural Connecticut and is doing some regional theater while devoting most of her time to rearing two children.

Charity said she did one play in New York after leaving Children’s Theatre in 1998 and then decided to make a career change. She designed clothing and taught Pilates at a St. Paul gym and felt life was humming along nicely. In 2001, however, she got a call from the Guthrie Theater asking if she might be interested in a five-week run of “Blood Wedding” that the Guthrie was producing with the Missouri Repertory Theatre in Kansas City.

“I thought, I can do anything for five weeks,” Jones recalled. “But as it turned out, it was a blast and I was suckered back into the business.”

In some ways, it was a new business for Jones, filled with the anxiety of auditions and dry spells. “When I was at Children’s Theatre, I was a salaried person, with benefits,” she said.  “We worked really hard, but it was a salary. I couldn’t imagine going around to auditions and not knowing when the next job would come, so it was a big change.

“But once you do it, it’s OK. It’s frustrating when you’re not getting work, but you get through it.”

And the work has been pretty steady. Jones has appeared at the History Theater, the Jungle, Mixed Blood, Eye of the Storm — and, of course, at the Guthrie, where she was in the annual production of “A Christmas Carol” for five straight years, always playing the Ghost of Christmas Past and Mrs. Fred.

Her work has been generally admired. In 2004, for example, City Pages named her best female actor in its annual list of Twin Cities “bests.”

Earlier this fall, she was part of Park Square Theatre’s production of “The Sisters Rosensweig,” which set an attendance record for the theater.

This year she’ll miss being in the annual Dickens show at the Guthrie. “Shadowlands,” which starts previews on Saturday and opens on Nov. 7, plays through Dec. 21. After that, Jones will move on to the theater’s production of Edward Albee‘s “A Delicate Balance,” scheduled to open in early January.

“I’m on a stretch here,” Jones said, laughing heartily. “You learn to hang on while it lasts.”

What: “Shadowlands”
Where: Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis
When: previews start Nov. 1; then Nov. 7-Dec. 21
Tickets: $24-$70
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