Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Faith in Darkness: A Review of Zion Theatre Company's 2012 Production of Mahonri Stewart's "Swallow the Sun"


I discovered C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia at a time when my classmates were reading books by authors like Judy Blume, Betsy Byars, and Katherine Paterson. This was in the late 1980s. Juvenile fiction—a term I never liked—had taken on a gritty, working-class aesthetic. In these books, children groped for meaning in a world run by deeply-flawed adults who either abandoned or disappointed them. They were often confused about themselves, their emotions, and their changing bodies. If innocence existed, it was a kind of crippled innocence that no one expected to last very long.

Like most kids, I read these books—Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing, The Pinballs, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Bridge to Terabithia—sometimes to follow the crowd, sometimes to catch a glimpse of an actual “bad word” in print. But none of them ever moved me the way The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader did. Sure, I got that Gilly Hopkins had it rough, and I felt the loss of Leslie Burke as acutely as Jess Aarons did, but only Edmund Pevensie seemed to hit close to home. Here finally was a kid like me: an angry family outcast who lived in his older brother’s shadow, schemed and lied to get respect, and needed—more than anyone—some show of divine love.

Edmund found that divine love in Narnia, and it was in pursuit of the same—and a little adventure—that led me and my sister to push against the back wall of the coat closet—the closest thing we had to a wardrobe in our house. We didn’t find Narnia then, nor did we find it in a subway station, a painting, or a pair of magic rings. Still, the allure of Narnia remained—especially after I made the Jesus-Aslan connection. Lewis’ wonder-world then became something deeper for me: Christian mystery in disguise.

How this wonder-world came to be is the subject of Mahonri Stewart’s play Swallow the Sun, now playing at Provo’s Castle Theater (1300 E Center Street), which tells the little-known story of C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. It begins with Lewis—who insists on being called “Jack”—as a newly enlisted soldier preparing for the trenches of World War I. Like his roommate, Paddy Moore, Lewis is an intellectual who is more interested in poetry and Norse mythology than war. For him, religion is just another myth, a collective of fabrications that are no more and no less true than the stories of Zeus and Hercules. He is headstrong and opinionated in this belief, a trait that strains his relationships with other characters in the play—particularly his father, Albert. Only Paddy’s mother, Janie, seems to see past his impenetrable fortress of ego. As a character, she is a mother-figure who helps humanize Jack for the audience—yet she’s not merely a supporting role. Like other mothers in Stewart’s work, she enriches the play with her maddening passive-aggressive resistance to society’s conventions for motherhood.

In this  Zion Theatre Company production of Swallow the Sun, Jack is played by the tweedy Ken Foody, who looks the part and carries the play with an energetic egotism that wins the audience over almost from the beginning. (Those who may be put off by Jack’s intellectual snobbery in the first scene will certainly change their minds when he is leaping off a couch while pretending to be Quasimodo.) Foody’s performance is matched by those of Sam Schofield, who plays Jack’s brother Warnie; Chris Bentley, who plays Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkein; and Jana Lee Stubbs, who plays the awkward “Smudge,” a foolish, frumpy woman who feels intense unrequited love for Jack. Susan Phelan, who plays Janie, and Matthew P. Davis, who plays the Falstaffian Hugo Dyson, also turn out memorable performances. The play is directed by veteran actor and director G. Randall King, who recently directed Stewart's controversial A Roof Overhead at Springville's Little Brown Theater.  

As a play, Swallow the Sun is well-written, funny, and thought-provoking. Critics of Stewart often cite wordiness as one of his flaws, but the eruption of language that occurs in this play hardly seems out of place for characters like Jack and his friends, all of whom are artists or thinkers who love the sounds of their own voice. Unfortunately, this draws attention to one of the weaknesses of this particular production: the quality of the actors’ accents. Foody, Bently, and Schofield do well enough, but other actors—particularly those playing Irish characters—clearly struggle to keep their accents consistent. Early in the play, this is somewhat distracting, but as the actors warm to their characters their accents begin to sound more convincing and less distracting. Only Lawrence McLay, who plays “Doc” Askins, Janie’s Spiritualist brother, never really finds his voice—which is unfortunate since his character’s boisterous mental breakdown is central to the play’s second act.

Another drawback of this production is the venue itself. While Provo’s Castle Theater is a beautiful outdoor amphitheater, it feels altogether too big for a play like Swallow the Sun, which deserves a more personal space to better accentuate the intimate nature of the its action and themes. Like the accents, though, this becomes less of a problem as the play progresses and the stars come out. By the time the second act begins, the sun is long gone and the night has erased all but the spotlit actors. Even the mosquitos stop biting.  

Despite the accents and the less-than-ideal venue, which—let’s face it—are an inevitable part of community theater, Swallow the Sun is a captivating journey from doubt to belief. When the play ends, Jack has not traded his smug atheism for an even smugger Christianity; rather, he has abandoned the safety of believing in nothing for the perilous mystery of faith. For Jack, and those who see themselves in his character, this is no easy matter. “I jumped off the cliff,” he tells J.R.R. Tolkien, “but I’m still falling.”

Oddly, during the night I attended the play, a spotlight malfunction left Foody delivering Jack’s final lines in the dark. As we left the venue, though, my brother-in-law mentioned that the malfunction worked well for the scene. He liked the idea of Jack expressing his hope and faith in Christ while shrouded in darkness. It made the faith seem more real, more like the kind of faith those who follow Christ need to have in order to be truly His.

My brother-in-law talked about this all the way home. The next day, he called up my wife—his older sister—and talked about it some more. He was really moved by it, she said.   

Zion Theatre Company's production of Mahonri Stewart's Swallow the Sun has two remaining performances on September 7 & 8 at 7:30 pm. 

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