We hear the acclaimed writer C.S. Lewis — yes, the Narnia guy — give the same lecture three times in the play, with each version varying slightly based on what's going on in his personal life.
The first time we hear him expound on why God, who is supposed to be loving and benevolent, allows mankind to suffer, Lewis is a complacent bachelor. He and his older brother, Warnie, live happily on their own in Oxford, and Lewis rules the intellectual roost among his Oxonian cronies. Lines like "Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world" and "Suffering is God's love in action" ring like the words of a man who is offering hollow comfort and trying to sell a few books.
The second time we hear the "pain is good" lecture, Lewis is, perhaps for the first time in his life, experiencing bone-deep pain. He realizes how incomplete and possibly false his words are. And the final time — at the end of the play, naturally — he's a different man. He has realized something altogether different about pain.
So we learn something interesting in "Shadowlands," and that is never to believe a lecture until you know what's going on in the speaker's love life.
OK, that might not be entirely true, but that's how Nicholson's drama is shaped. He uses the lectures to show us Lewis' emotional growth, and it's effective to a degree, but it's a creaky structure on top of an already rather conventional play that trades heavily on Lewis' celebrity.
Born as a British made-for-TV movie in 1985, the teleplay was turned by Nicholson into a stage play four years later. After runs in London's West End and on Broadway, the script hit the big screen with Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy Gresham, the Jewish-Communist-Christian-American woman who changes his life.
The most interesting thing about the play, which is back on stage courtesy of the Palo Alto Players, is the way it wrestles with the central idea of faith. From his cozy den, Lewis, played here with grounded believability by Fred Sharkey, seems to have it all figured out. He cranks out popular children's books and religious-themed treatises while sipping a "decent claret" and dressing in a silk writer's robe that would please Noel Coward.
Lewis is an intellectual, and many of his views were just that: intellectual. Then he meets Gresham, played with admirable spark by Trish Tillman. She's essentially a fan who struck up an epistolary relationship with the famous writer before she showed up in Oxford for tea.
With a sharp wit, a self-deprecating manner and her young son at her side, Joy ingratiates herself into Lewis' life. The writer's musty Oxford comrades don't understand the hold she has on him, but almost to a man, these characters are superfluous to the play, so who cares what they think?
The friendship between Joy and the man known to his friends as Jack deepens, but Act 1 ends with Joy having a pang of hip pain. That's like seeing a gun in the first act of an Ibsen play. You know that thing will be going off by the final curtain.
Sure enough, just like Greta Garbo coughing in "Camille," Joy's hip pain takes the story into an entirely different direction. The intellectual becomes real. Emotion replaces brainy discussion. And the play, in effect, actually begins.
Under the direction of Marilyn Langbehn, who helmed last season's extraordinary "Rabbit Hole," lead actors Sharkey and Tillman carry the play and nearly succeed in besting its conventions. Their scenes together crackle and make you wish they were in a play that offered a few more surprises and a little more depth. Lewis' and Gresham's is an unconventional love story that cries out for a more unconventional telling.
Nicholson never lets us forget that Lewis wrote "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." In fact, Patrick Klein's set is dominated by a giant wardrobe. Gresham's son Douglas (the sympathetic Nathan Kaplan at last Sunday's matinee — Ryan Kain alternates in the role), who is working his way through Lewis' books, has several supposedly magical experiences in that wardrobe. But these flights of fancy never seem anything but inconsistent with the rather mundane tone of the rest of the play.
"Shadowlands" could use a dose of fancy, anything to liven up the scenes in a gentleman's club (or maybe it's the Oxford faculty lounge) and Lewis' drab living room. In the end, though, we get an intermittently interesting script that asks some compelling questions about faith and how we wrestle with it and, sometimes, how we find ways to bend it and shape it into everyday life.
Pain, Lewis learns with Gresham's help, is simply part of happiness. If you're happy now, expect the pain later. It's a fascinating notion and one everyone can relate to — even if you're not a famous writer delivering a lecture.
What: "Shadowlands" by William Nicholson, presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Feb. 6, with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sundays
Cost: Tickets are $30 general, and $26 for seniors and students on Thursdays and Sundays.
Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.