|l. to r.: Sarah Dubinsky, Meshal Alsunaid, Tehilah Caviness, Logan Peters|
Their Kingdom Come
By Tom Wachunas
“Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”
― C.S. Lewis, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
"The Narnian books are not as much allegory as supposal. Suppose there were a Narnian world and it, like ours, needed redemption. What kind of incarnation and Passion might Christ be supposed to undergo there?” – C.S. Lewis
As of this writing, The Players Guild Theatre (PGT) production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is sold out. Still, I’m moved to gratitude, and to my continuing celebration of how blessed we are to have the PGT in our midst.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a fantasy novel written by C. S. Lewis in 1950, and generally regarded as the best known of seven novels comprising The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956). The story opens in World War II-era England and follows the adventures of the four Pevensie siblings after they stumble through the backside of a wardrobe closet and into a most unexpected place – the magical world of Narnia, populated by all manner of mythical talking animals. There, the children meet and aid the great lion named Aslan, who has returned to reclaim his kingdom from the evil White Witch and her cruel minions. After his victory, he departs for other realms and rewards the children for their trust and bravery by making them - whom he has called his Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve – heirs to his kingdom, the new Kings and Queens of Narnia.
Writing a really invigorating story, and then making really invigorating theatre from it, are both very much about surrendering, or stepping through a portal deeply embedded in the human soul. Call it what you will – imagination, intuition, or faith – it’s the portal of desire to see beyond the merely apparent and the willingness to go there. True artists, as well as children, are especially adept at reporting what happens upon crossing the threshold of that portal.
Right from the start of this dramatization by Joseph Robinette, directed here by Jonathan Tisevich, it was eminently clear that the storytellers are indeed the children. As they flee from wartime air raids on a train ride to their rural refuge, they walk in a circle around the stage of the Guild’s arena theater, holding their suitcases above their heads, gently rocking them up and down to magically become rail cars rolling along country hillsides.
So there’s nothing here of the glitzy special effects or breathtaking landscapes that dazzled us in the 2005 Disney film version. Instead, everything feels like it’s happening in, say, a dusty attic. Still, throughout this pared-down iteration of the story, the visual austerity of the set designed by Joshua Erichsen, together with the clever simplicity of the costumes by Stephen Ostertag, effectively conjure just enough alluring otherworldliness.
Among the most thrilling aspects of this production is the riveting authenticity which Sarah Dubinsky, Meshal Alsunaid, Tehilah Caviness, and Logan Peters bring to their respective roles of Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter. These performers are youthful adults, to be sure. Yet for the lion’s share of the proceedings, so to speak, they’re so emotionally invested in their characters’ distinctive personalities that I thought at times I was observing actual children. They’re that credible and endearing. And in navigating the play’s deeper themes of fear, betrayal, forgiveness, and sacrifice, they seem to grow up before our very eyes.
Equally endearing in their effusive and giddy energy are Michael Burke and Morgan Brown as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Additionally, Jeremy A. Clarke brings enchanting tenderness to his role of the friendly faun, Tumnus. On the other end of the behavioral spectrum, Charli Habingreither is deliciously vicious in her role of Ulf, the wolf-captain of the White Witch’s police force. She’s all too eager to carry out her boss’s every murderous command.
As the White Witch, Shley Snider is charming and seductive in the darkest, most deceptive sense of the words. With a voice sometimes searing enough to peel paint, she’s also literally chilling, considering how her character’s cold-hearted maleficence has wreaked permanent winter on Narnia.
Interestingly, the most understated presence here is Aslan, played by Eric Dubinsky. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a very sensible understatement. Call it royal serenity. Or loving surrender. Dubinsky convincingly gives us Aslan’s unswerving compassion and confidence. Such qualities become all the more palpable and bittersweet as we witness his moment of real anguish when he’s about to die by the Witch’s hand.
In the end, consistent with so many past occasions, I simply marveled at the exquisitely appointed portal to compelling art that The Players Guild Theatre keeps open for us.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe – at the Players Guild Theatre, THROUGH JANUARY 27, 2019 /1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio
NOTE: I have included here some illustrations by Pauline Banes from the first edition of the novel in 1950, later hand-colored by the artist for the HarperCollins anniversary publication of the complete "Chronicles of Narnia," published in 2000