LONG BEACH — The rarefied private worlds of literary giants sometimes have an antique bloom, an aura of such delicate shading that often it is difficult for playwrights to duplicate the emotional settings with a sense of honesty.
With "Shadowlands" (at the Long Beach Studio Theatre), William Nicholson accomplished the task with intelligence, humor and a great understanding of the enigma that was author C.S. Lewis.
There also is a daunting challenge to actors who play these figures, not to make them simplistic, not to sketch them in strokes too broad and transparent. And to directors, not to overplay the playwright's hand by misplacing the emphasis.
In one of the Long Beach Studio's finest moments, director Joanne Gordon has wrought a production of Nicholson's drama that not only captures the microcosmic Oxonian world in which Lewis spent most of his life, but gives it a sense of immediacy and truth. Her casting is impeccable, and her comprehension of the humor, wit and intellectual fermentation during Lewis' late discovery of romance, and love, is at once delicate and forceful.
Bob Fimiani gives a luminous performance as Lewis, at first slightly stodgy, growing subtly more youthful as he realizes that a younger writer and admirer, Joy Gresham, has revolutionized not only his daily life but his very philosophy. Fimiani's control and restraint during the moments when Lewis is beginning to open his heart and his soul to Joy are flawless.
Dorothy A. Gallagher's exuberant Joy, an American riding her literary dream roughshod into the musty Oxford milieu, is balanced delicately against Lewis' civility. Gallagher knows where Joy's charm is; where her unhappy marriage has left her emotionally, and where her courage and her worship of Lewis' writing have brought her.
These two performances are blended into a buoyant and eventually heart-wrenching mix that, like a fine sauce or a Baroque concerto, gives the relationship a richness and humanity that seems total.
Fimiani and Gallagher are helped by an exemplary supporting cast, most notably Robert Kokol, verging marvelously on an academic Col. Blimp as Lewis' ebullient and understanding brother, Warnie; Jonathan Turco as Joy's son, full of wonder at the new world into which his mother has drawn him, and Jimmie D. Hudson, John Ross Clark and John C. Barry as Lewis' and Warnie's Oxford colleagues, whose senses of detail and color place the action exactly were it should be.
The set by Bradley Kaye and Stephen Shapiro proves that a small stage is no deterrent to impressive effects: A turntable brings set pieces for the multiple locations smoothly and silently into place at just the right moment, and a paneled background opens magically as Joy's son is drawn more and more into the wonderland of Lewis' children's books, to hide from the tragedy about to engulf both him and the author.
Norma Garza's intricate lighting, Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez's evocative costumes and Justus Matthews' gentle sound design are integral parts of an impressive whole.
\o7 * "Shadowlands," Long Beach Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 5, 2 p.m. Ends June 11. $10. (310) 494-1616. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. \f7 Bob Fimiani C.S. Lewis
Dorothy A. Gallagher: Joy Gresham
Robert Kokol: Maj. Warnie Lewis
Jonathan Turco: Douglas Gresham
Jimmie D. Hudson: Maurice Oakley
John Ross Clark: Christopher Riley
John C. Barry: Rev. Harry Harrington
A Long Beach Playhouse production of William Nicholson's drama, directed by Joanne Gordon. Scenic design: Bradley Kaye, Steven Shapiro. Lighting design: Norma Garza. Sound design: Justus Matthews. Costume design: Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez. Stage manager: P.J. Flynn.