C.S. Lewis on stage: Working to bring the DNA of life and faith to off-Broadway

NEW YORK -- To get to The Pearl Theatre, drama lovers visit the bright lights of Broadway and then turn West and head deep into Hell's Kitchen, where the off-Broadway marquees are smaller and the offerings more daring.

For the team behind "C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce," the road to The Pearl ran through halls in Chattanooga, Tenn., Tampa, Fla., San Diego, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere before reaching New York for a Dec. 3 opening night in the intimate 162-seat venue.

Theater's highest hurdle is still New York City, explained Max McLean, founder and director of the Fellowship for Performing Arts team and co-writer of this version of "The Great Divorce."

Living and working in the neighborhood defined by Broadway and off-Broadway, he said, means "being surrounded by hundreds of artists of every kind. They may not be as well known as people in Hollywood, but they are producing art that's exported to the whole world. This community in New York City still has tremendous influence. …

"The goal is for our work to be taken seriously. We want to tell stories that engage the moral imagination and push people to take faith seriously -- right here."

Ironically, one way for a modern company dedicated to faith and the arts to find cultural credibility is to look to the past, focusing on the work of legendary writers who are not part of the modern evangelical subculture.

Lewis remains one of the world's most popular writers and the Oxford University don was an articulate atheist before his turn to Christianity, a conversion that took place with the help of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. In addition to "The Great Divorce," McLean has produced, directed and starred in the four-year national, and off-Broadway, run of another Lewis classic, "The Screwtape Letters."

"Lewis called himself a dinosaur" in the 1950s, said McLean. "But for me, he remains the model for how to bring the Christian imagination into the mainstream. He remains a relevant dinosaur -- along with Tolkien -- and he points us to the work of G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers and others."

The key, McLean explained, is to find the "universal DNA" in these stories and communicate it while working within the creative and financial realities of mainstream theater. "The Great Divorce" is, literally, a parable about eternal life.

In this off-Broadway show, the three-person cast performs against an electronic backdrop of changing images, including the glowing bus that regularly carries souls from hell up to heaven. The damned are welcome to stay in heaven if they can resolve the issues that caused them to choose hell in the first place.

Heaven looks like a bright, surreal version of Scotland, with snowy mountains in the distance. Hell is a rainy, gray industrial city in which people can have whatever they want, but what most want is to fight about the shabby choices that define their afterlives. It's the kind of place, one spirit quips, "where people like advertising."

These ghosts find it hard to stay in heaven because that would mean facing old sins, such as cynicism, greed, lust or the will to dominate others. In one agonizing scene, a mother returns to hell rather than forgive God for her son's death. Can she take her child back with her?

She tells one of the redeemed: "Give me my boy. Do you hear? I don't care about all your rules and regulations. I don't believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart. ... No one has a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to his face. I want my boy and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, forever and ever. … I hate and despise your God. I believe in a God of love."

The play's bottom line: Some people tell God, "Thy will be done." With others, God has to tell them, "THY will be done."

Yes, big issues on a small stage.

"If Christianity is true, then it has to be true because it hits the universal themes that touch all of human life," said McLean. "Can we tell those stories onstage, here in New York City? That's what we're trying to do."