Fellowship for Performing Arts’ revival of William Nicholson’s 30-year-old, Tony Award-nominated Shadowlands — directed at a monotonously dull pace by Christa Scott-Reed at Theatre Row — is a period play that persistently plays the artificial period, not its timelessly human truth.
This overbearing tendency is rather perfectly represented onstage by the hollowly superficial sets, which echo the past in as unappealingly unimaginative manner as the rest.
Then again, maybe this design is supposed to capture Christianity’s skeptical perspective on materialism, that the glamorous, often enchanting trappings of everyday corporeal existence are just components of the shallow, often distracting trial-run of life for the more substantive afterlife. Scott Reed’s “Note from the Director” in the program expresses sentiments that corroborate this defense:
“The line that should linger with audiences is, ‘The pain now is part of the happiness then, that’s the deal.’ The Platonic idea of Shadowlands is explained this way in the play: ‘This world that seems to us so substantial is no more than the shadowlands. Real life has not begun yet. Death looms over the characters in this play and so they often touch upon the contrast between our imperfect, shadowed human world and the bright, unfathomable realness of the afterlife.”
Perhaps the production’s lack of humanity throughout is intended to convey this theology. But that’s the problem with art driven by a preexisting set of ideals. There’s a chance I’m just projecting based on my knowledge that Fellowship for Performing Arts — to quote how this company describes itself — “creates theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience,” but the revival really seems to unsubtly hit the lines and aspects in Nicholson’s text that emphasize a religious ideology. Though the opinions of creators regarding their own work should never be taken as gospel, it’s telling that a director believes her entire production can be boiled down to one line.
Compelling drama interrogates values; it doesn’t reaffirm them. In a way, it’s refreshing to deal with this issue from a conservative perspective, because usually artists commit this mistake in the name of ardent, polemical progressivism. But a fault is still a fault, no matter from which side of the aisle it stems.
Even if there’s more brimming underneath Shadowlands’ surface than I detected, Scott-Reed and Co. fail to sufficiently obscure their complexity-minimizing artistic agenda. All they needed to do was take a cue from The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, who’s the main character here. Though this widely-beloved series contains a multitude of Christian influences, they’re only touched upon after the fantastical world has already immersed the audience in transportive wonder. Without such attractively rich elements, Fellowship for Performing Arts will find it difficult to achieve their stated goal of “engaging a diverse audience.”