The first time actors Karla Knudsen and Tim Hartman played the roles of Joy and Jack, it was 1997.
The pair was starring in a Pittsburgh, PA production of Shadowlands, the poignant story of how writer and theologian C.S. "Jack" Lewis finds late–in–life love with American poet Joy Davidman Gresham. The script also explores the themes of entrenched faith and tragic loss, and at 28 and 36 respectively, Knudsen and Hartman had little relatable experience to their characters' middle–aged maturity.
But that didn't seem to dampen the critics' praise: The show opened to rave reviews, and both Knudsen and Hartman count it as a turning point that deepened their commitment to their craft.
Sixteen years later, the chemistry seems even stronger as they reprise the same roles for The Collective Face Theatre Ensemble's production of Shadowlands, onstage for three weekends March 8–24 at Muse Arts Warehouse.
While many only know Lewis' work from his Narnia Chronicles, others have looked beyond the wardrobe to his writings on faith, notably in the bestselling Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain. His reputation as a respected and practically monkish academic crumbled when Gresham appeared on the scene in the 1950s to challenge him intellectually and emotionally.
After a long correspondence, their subsequent courtship surprised no one more than Lewis. Gresham's death in 1960 from cancer devastated him, rocking what was once an unshakeable certitude in God's goodness. His reflections on his bereavement are chronicled in one of his last books, A Grief Observed, the inspiration for William Nicholson's script.
"As a young man, you can understand something and you can sympathize with it, but you don't necessarily live it," muses Hartman, who has lost his father and mother–in–law to cancer since that first Shadowlands run. "Now I feel it."
Hartman, an accomplished actor (he appeared on Broadway in Finian's Rainbow and A Tale of Two Cities), storyteller and political cartoonist, arrived in Savannah last week from his home in Pittsburgh, PA to join the rest of the cast. He and Knudsen had warmed up their reconnection as Jack and Joy in another critically–acclaimed reprisal last year in Pittsburgh, and Collective Face member Knudsen pleaded with artistic director David I.L Poole to bring Hartman down south as a guest artist.
"David's really put a lot of trust in us," says Knudsen, who exchanged dialogue with a stand–in or sometimes an empty chair for the first six weeks of rehearsals.
Good thing these two have done this before. Their familiarity with the script and each other have allowed them to quickly find their places on the stage and plug in with the supporting cast. The fact that she and Hartman have finally caught up to their characters' ages inevitably provides a more capacious context, though Knudsen acknowledges it's not as easy as just showing up.
"There's a gravity that comes with being on the planet longer," she says. "But that doesn't mean you don't have to do the actor's work."
Both Knudsen and Hartman agree that while the Academy Award–nominated screen version of Shadowlands starring Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger was beautifully acted, too many of the deep theological discussions were left out. Far from what Hartman calls "a 'cancer of the week' Lifetime movie," the play contains a multitude of layers, couched in charm, quiet romance and the ever–evocative question of faith.
"The effect on people who have lost loved ones is wonderful," says Hartman. "Here is someone they admire spiritually who had to go through the same kind of pain and came out the other end."
Directed by Dandy Barrett with input from Knudsen, Shadowlands also stars Mark Rand as Professor Christopher Riley, who provides a sparring partner for Jack's wavering faith.
"He's constantly being challenged by that character mentally, he's the one who understands the emotional side of what Jack is going through," explains Hartman.
Of Jack's brother and roommate Warnie Lewis — played by Connect's Bill DeYoung — Hartman says they're "like an old married couple. They're both talking but neither is listening."
Knudsen cast Christopher Blair as Jack's pastor Harry Harrington, a small yet vital role.
"It had to be someone who could bring a lot of depth in a short amount of time, and I knew Chris could do that," says Knudsen.
Rounding out the rest of the cast are Baker McKay, Craig Beck, Trish McKay and Daniel Zuzalek.
The action revolves around how Jack is blindsided by Joy, a "Jewish communist Christian American" looking for answers to life's most meaningful questions.
"She's a seeker, looking voraciously for truth and reality," considers Knudsen. "She sees something shiny, spiritually, and she grabs on to it and takes it apart to see if its true — she's not afraid of that."
In Lewis, she continues, Joy finds "another human on the planet who seems to have the same hunger."
Though a decade and a half has passed since they first performed the love story of Jack and Joy, the years continue to give both actors a wider and more humble perspective on life and faith.
"Everyone's faith is going to be challenged at some point," reminds Knudsen. "If you don't think so, just wait."
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays March 8–23, 3 p.m. Sundays March 10– 24
Where: Muse Arts Warehouse, 703D Louisville Rd.
Tickets: $15, $12 students/seniors