Despite the fact that I’d read The Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, I didn’t become a C. S. Lewis fan until my senior year of High School. And it wasn’t through my Baptist youth group. My (public school) English teacher gave me a copy of The Great Divorce with a note that said, “I think you’ll like this.” And she was right.
The Great Divorce profoundly shaped how I understand God, humanity and free will. And frankly, I wasn’t sure it could be adapted for the stage.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I experienced Max McLean and Brian Watkins’s fantastic adaption at the Capitol Theatre in Columbus, OH. Directed by Bill Castellino, The Great Divorce uses only three actors to portray more than a dozen characters from the book.
If you’re not familiar with the text, Lewis presents The Great Divorce as a dream he has of waking up in “the Grey Town”, which may or may not be Hell. He joins a bus queue and finds himself en route to Heaven (sort of), learning the history and nature of the Grey Town from his fellow passengers. Once they arrive, they find this new place to be too real, so that they all appear to be ghosts: grass hurts their feet, water can be walked on, and so on.
Each of the bus passengers (Lewis begins referring to them as “ghosts”) is met by a person from the distant mountains (the beginning of “true Heaven”). They are persons from their past lives – coworkers, relatives, spouses – whose sole job it is to convince them to choose Heaven over Hell.
You’d think it was a simple choice, but the number of ghosts that choose to stay in Hell – and their reasons for doing so – is not only shocking, but provocative.
Many of the scenes Lewis created are so powerful I can still recall them over a decade after last having read the book. And I wasn’t worried that the play couldn’t reproduce these character interactions. But how to capture the dreary terror of the Grey Town? The brilliant, glorious-but-possibly-dangerous feel of the foothills of Heaven?
Here is where McLean and Watkins’ adaptation really shines, particularly as inhabited and given life by The Great Divorce’s three stellar actors. All three actors – Tom Beckett, Joel Rainwater and Christa Scott-Reed – play Lewis himself and the rotating casts of ghosts and heavenly spirits. This constant shifting (as well as some outstanding staging and projection) creates a decidedly other-worldly, dreamlike quality to the show. But it’s also completely clear. I never felt lost or confused as to who was supposed to be who at any point.
The cast is simply remarkable. Despite the fact that several of their characters were on stage for a handful of minutes, each felt fully-realized; I found myself wishing to see more of them, to watch them just a bit longer. My personal favorite was Christa Scott-Reed, in no small part because she gave life to the most memorable and haunting character in the book: a mother who can’t wait to see her son who had died as a child.
The Great Divorce play is a wonderful experience. Whether you’re a long-time Lewis fan or looking to be introduced for the first time, you should check it out.
My wife Amanda had not read The Great Divorce and I didn’t tell her much going in. She knew from the advertisements that it was about Heaven and Hell and she’s generally familiar with Lewis’ work. I was worried that she’d be lost at points, but she loved it as much as I did, and we enjoyed a lengthy discussion on the way home.
That’s the real success of The Great Divorce. This story has some of the most profound theological reflection on God, love and free will you’re likely to find anywhere. It’s been profoundly influential in my life and in the lives of many. And the stage version preserves all of that theological musing, woven into a gripping, entertaining 90 minutes.
The Great Divorce is probably coming somewhere near you. Get tickets here.
BOTTOM LINE: This play is worth seeing. It’s weird, a little creepy and wonderful. Whether you’re fan of the classic or just want a good night out, The Great Divorce will hit the spot.
YOUR TURN: Have you read The Great Divorce? Will you see the play?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received complementary tickets to The Great Divorce in exchange for reviewing the play. I was not required to write a positive review. All opinions are my own. If you don’t believe me, go see the play for yourself!