As "Shadowlands" played Sunday evening, unusual things happened at the intimate Colonial Players Theater just off State Circle in Annapolis.
When the intermission lights came up, there was a collective "aw" uttered by an audience disappointed at having to let go of playwright William Nicholson's extraordinary characters, even for a little while. The "aw" was followed by a sustained round of intermission applause, also a Colonial Players rarity in my experience.
And, as the story spun to its sad conclusion, I heard more sobbing, nose-blowing and tissue-rustling than in all my other visits to East Street combined.
This "Shadowlands," in short, packs an emotional wallop and gets a reaction.
As all Debra Winger-Anthony Hopkins fans know, "Shadowlands" the story of the relationship shared by C. S. Lewis, the Christian novelist-poet-theologian, and Joy Gresham, the feisty American who turned Lewis' bachelor life upside down in their brief time together.
"Women are more interesting in theory than in practice," the pretentious writer prattles early on. Little does he know.
Despite the abundance of moist linen by play's end, "Shadowlands" is far more than an Anglican "Love Story."
The principals possess far greater substance than Ollie and Jennifer ever dreamed of, and the play's message -- that suffering is love, that pain is a "megaphone to rouse a deaf world" -- is a challenging one to be sure.
One can dispute the author's metaphysics, but writing a searching, gut-wrenching play like this one means never having to say you're sorry.
I suspect you'll be awed by the remarkable performances turned in by the two principals. Lee Dorsey, who portrays Lewis sans English accent, walks the fine line between honest British intellectualism and blathering pretension like a masterful high-wire man. While clipped and formal, he is honest, vulnerable and altogether worthy of respect.
Marti Pogonowski's Joy Gresham is so sassy, funny and genuine that a staid Oxford don would have to be dotty not to fall in love with her. Her truth lights up the stage whether she's sucker-punching a smarmy Lewis colleague ("Are you being offensive or merely stupid?" she asks), or plying her irreverence even amid the shadows of her hospital room.
An excellent supporting cast (special bravos to Al Cauffman as Lewis' delightful brother) is also on hand to remind us that poet Wallace Stevens may indeed have been on to something when he observed: "Death is the mother of beauty."
"Shadowlands" is at the Colonial Players Theater, 108 East St., Annapolis, through June 4. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Matinees are planned for 2:30 p.m. Sunday and May 29. Tickets cost $7 for Thursdays and Sundays and $10 for Fridays and Saturdays. Information: 268-7373.