Theater Review: The Great Divorce takes audience through the afterlife 

Bus ride from hell

What’s the mark of a great piece of art? Is it beautiful? Should it make you think? Make you question your beliefs? Should it make you wonder?

This weekend, a production at the Sottile Theatre aims to answer those questions and more. The stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is produced by the New York-based Fellowship for the Performing Arts, which tells theatrical stories from a Christian point of view. The Great Divorce tells the story of a person’s journey from hell to heaven, and all the quirky, hopelessly-flawed-but-not-beyond-salvation people met along the way.

To adapt the book for stage, the group took a densely packed 118-page volume of theological fantasy that, according to FPA Artistic Director Max McLean, would take over four and a half hours to read, and turned it into a 90-minute play.

Three actors were enlisted to portray 19 roles. Tom Beckett, Joel Rainwater, and Christa Scott-Reed are all Broadway veterans. Throughout the Great Divorce, they switch roles and accents as easily as they slip in and out of the robes and hats that identify different people on their journey to heaven. They play ghosts and enlightened spirits in turn, and they’re brilliant, working together in seamless fashion. Sometimes they speak in unison, their voices blending to become a single, powerful, eerie entity on the stage. No two voices used by each actor are ever quite the same. The cast works magic, and it was a joy to watch.

To represent a fantastical bus ride from hell to heaven, producers, set designers, and lighting designers created a gorgeous stage setup. Framed by a library filled with books and clocks, central screens drop from the ceiling only to disappear as if on a whim or a prayer.  The scenes projected on the screens are sometimes dark and bleak, and other times transcendently rich and beautiful. The actors tread upon a circular grassy area at center stage.

But make no mistake: this show has an agenda. C.S. Lewis had an agenda. That agenda is strictly Christian (no surprise given its creators). Hell is a place the damned seem to choose; to remain in heaven, difficult choices must be made. It’s all presented through a heavy, religious veil. At times, particularly in the second half of the show, the dialog was preachy. A quick glance around me, however, told me I was in the minority in feeling so. The nods and emphatic “uh-huhs” of the crowd sometimes transported me to church. It was surreal, as far as a standard theater-going experience goes.

But then came my favorite part of the night. After the final curtain call, Max McLean, FPA's artistic director and the show's adaptor, came out to talk with the members of the audience who wanted to learn more about the show.

While the show clearly has a Christian agenda, McLean was open to discourse. He spoke of C.S. Lewis with an admiration that was palpable. “This was written to stimulate the imagination,” he said. “Lewis wasn’t trying to say, ‘This means this.’ Rather, he asked, ‘What does this mean to me?’”

Even the most obvious of agendas, then, can open to interpretation and discussion.

And discussion would abound. As I left the theater, theater-goers talked heaven and hell. As I walked to the parking deck, they talked about the play’s merits and faults.

If art is supposed to be beautiful, this production of The Great Divorce is certainly art. And if art is meant to stimulate discussion, to make you think, to make you wonder and talk to your neighbor about your doubts and fears, then I have to admit: The Great Divorce is certainly art.

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