I’m a huge C.S. Lewis fan, and I’ve loved Max McLean’s stage productions of his stuff. I’ve driven three hours each way to Atlanta to see his The Screwtape Letters – twice. Tickets to The Great Divorce were part of a Christmas present from my mom and I’ve been looking forward to it for literal years, since Max announced the project. Luckily I didn’t have to go all the way to Atlanta this time!
If you’re not familiar with the novel, it’s about people from hell visiting the outskirts of heaven. The thesis, or at least one of them, is that those in hell are there by choice. Those in heaven try to convince them to stay, but they refuse, for one reason or another. (Start looking into this and you open a huge can of worms, but it’s an interesting topic. You might start with this interview in Rachel Held Evans’ “Ask A…” interview series that mentions The Great Divorce a few times: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/hell-series-ask-a-traditionalist-1-response-walls).
The Great Divorce is a surreal book about ideas and conversations, playing on Lewis’ unique afterlife imagery, not so much a narrative novel. I’m sure everyone who heard about it wondered how they’d ever manage it onstage. Three actors – Tom Beckett, Joel Rainwater, and Christa Scott-Reed – play about 9 roles each. (Beckett’s turn as George MacDonald was charming). I was disappointed Max McLean wouldn’t be one of them, but his voice does make a few appearances! The book is mainly a sequence of conversations and examples of the kinds of people who prefer hell, with some hints about how they got that way. Not every character from the book made it onto the stage, but there really wouldn’t have been time and it would’ve gotten bogged down.
All three actors also play Lewis/the observer, sometimes one at a time, sometimes several at once. It’s essentially a one-act, with them switching roles and props on stage. That immediately lends the production a dreamlike quality, as does having few props at all. The location is suggested by rear projection onto a blank backdrop (and occasionally moving pieces of screen in front of it), allowing for slow scene shifts. They evoke ineffable heavenly events with glowing special effects on the screen, supplemented by characters’ narration but mostly left to the imagination. This was a good choice, letting the audience fill in the details for themselves and avoiding real-world-constraint disappointment. (It must be nerve-wracking to be that dependent on technology, though. Our performance did indeed start late because of technical difficulties, but we didn’t know that until afterward, they pulled it off admirably!)
All told, the material made for a talky play, but the actors did a great job and delivered moving performances for many characters in quick succession. I do feel like The Screwtape Letters was more accessible for a general audience, but if you enjoyed that or are a Lewis fan, I can encourage you to see The Great Divorce. Otherwise, I think you probably know by now if its the kind of thing you’d enjoy – surreal theological and spiritual discussion. I certainly recommend the book to all interested parties, and you can get it for much cheaper than a theater ticket!
For more information and current tour dates, go to http://greatdivorceonstage.com/.