By PRISCILLA GREEAR,Staff Writer | Published January 5, 2006
In May 1977 actor Tom Key had just seen his first one-person theatrical production when he was asked by Stamford University in Birmingham, Ala., to read poetry by C.S. Lewis, an author whose works he had devoured in graduate school.
Instead he conceived and wrote a one-man production on the life of the acclaimed writer. Little did he know that his acceptance of this invitation, which he now sees as providential, would lay a cornerstone for his career and life, even into the new year of 2006 when he will re-present it at the Theatrical Outfit.
When he saw the one-person show “The Belle of Amherst” on poetess Emily Dickinson 29 years ago, Key recalls, “I was so impressed that even though it was a one-person show it was written with the rules of a well-made play, but the protagonist and antagonist existed all in the same person … It was the internal struggle.”
After the show he remarked to his wife, Beverly, that “if I ever did a one-man show it would have to be on C.S. Lewis because he’s the only author or figure I feel I understood that well. You really have to have a lot of passion toward the character to do a one-man show. I really felt this toward him.”
When he received the Stamford invitation the next day, “I said, ‘How about I write a one-man show and include his poetry?’” The then 27-year-old actor caked on the stage makeup to portray the humble, bookish Oxford University professor and author of academic works, philosophical and apologetics books on faith, fiction, fantasy and poetry.
The next year Key moved to Atlanta and after taking a job at a “really bad cabaret” show wound up quitting after refusing to participate in an offensive take-off song on Larry Flynt. With a 1-year-old child, “I thought maybe somebody else would be interested in this one-man show on C. S. Lewis—I needed a job.” He sent out a little memo and made some calls to colleges and Lewis-related organizations and proceeded over the next two years to perform over 120 productions in more than 30 states. He then turned down an offer to sell the script to the Westminster Theatre Company in London, and years later got the rights again to tour on university campuses and in concert artist series in the United States and Canada, beginning with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1984. He has performed the play at Ivy League universities, at Emory University in Atlanta and at other schools around the country amidst his involvement in “Cotton Patch Gospel” and many other productions.
About seven years ago Key was invited to perform for a benefit at the C.S. Lewis Foundation in California where “mercifully they didn’t tell me I’d be doing it with (C.S. Lewis’ stepson) Douglas Gresham there until it was too late to turn back.” Following that show, he was invited to perform it at a theater at Oxford in honor of Lewis’ life.
“He had lectured there. It was a tremendous thrill,” Key said.
Gresham invited him last summer to perform the play again at Oxford University, where he asked for the rights to perform it at Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit, where he serves as executive artistic director, to coincide with the December 2005 opening of the movie “The Chronicles of Narnia: ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’” based on Lewis’ children’s fantasy series.
While he’s outgrown many others who influenced him in his younger years, Key considers the Oxford don’s works a replenishing and enlightening wellspring from which to continually drink—like a “constant companion” and “a dear old friend” whose thoughts infuse his mind, along with those of spiritually provocative Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.
Key is presenting “C.S. Lewis on Stage” Jan. 11-22 at the Theatrical Outfit, directed by Catholic actress Rosemary Newcott. The production captures the personality and fiction of the man through his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy,” along with other writings.
In an interview in a conference room overlooking Luckie Street on the second floor of the Outfit’s new home at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, the Alabama native in his mid-50s said that in some ways it’s a lot easier to play Lewis these days.
“It used to take me a lot of time to do the makeup. Now I just slick my hair back and go out on stage,” he said with a smile. “I’ve made a few revisions to the script, and I’m really looking forward to this.”
Lewis lived from 1898-1963 and was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He experienced the tragic loss of his mother to cancer as a boy, after which he was sent to boarding school in England where he endured an extremely harsh bullying system. He became an atheist by 14. He was wounded in World War I and wrote of the horrors of war and seeing the “corpses still moving like half-crushed beetles.”
“He knew the worst of the human condition,” Key said.
He went on to teach English literature for over 40 years at Oxford and Cambridge, and his magnum opus in that field, “English Literature in the Sixteenth Century,” stands as a monument of scholarship. The portly, self-effacing professor traveled little and lived alone or with his beloved brother most of his adult life and didn’t marry until late in life. Sadly, after only three years of marriage, his wife, Joy, died of cancer.
Lewis was portrayed in the film “Shadowlands” by Anthony Hopkins. A few of his more well-known works are “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Four Loves” and “Mere Christianity,” which argues logically for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity and was published from lectures he gave on BBC radio during World War II.
Last summer at Oxford, Key walked along the path of Addison’s Way where Lewis had spoken with his friend and Catholic author, J.R.R. Tolkien, about faith. Lewis had a strong interest in Nordic mythology, and his friend pointed out that Christianity is different in that it has an historical basis, which was “an incredible turning point for Lewis” in his discovery of Christ.
“This reworked production incorporates new material I learned while I was at Oxford University, walking Addison’s Way at Magdalen College. This is the same path that C.S. Lewis took with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien when he was moved to become a theist after years of atheistic philosophy,” Key said. “He went back to his room at Magdalen College and surrendered” to God, eventually becoming a devout Christian.
In his writing, Lewis attributes his conversion largely to the influence of Christian friends, being wounded in World War I and reading authors like George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton, which led him to finally surrender to the pursuit of God, Key said. “Kind of like Flannery O’Connor, he had a very uninteresting life on one level; on another level it was an extraordinary life of charity. He gave away so much money that one year he didn’t have enough to pay his taxes.”
“I think the kindness and charity and patience he showed his students and his financial generosity and the excellence of his scholarship and the profound gift of his theology makes up a remarkable life. I don’t think there is a better book about suffering than ‘A Grief Observed.’”
Key was first exposed to Lewis growing up as a Baptist in Alabama, where his best friend gave him a copy of “Mere Christianity,” which he threw against the wall, frustrated by its difficulty and insulted that his friend might consider him a “mere pagan.”
When he was then given, as a wedding present, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” he thought, “Oh no, it’s that C.S. Lewis again.” He would read it to his children some day, he recalls thinking of the odd gift. One morning, however, while stuck in traffic with his wife during graduate school at the University of Tennessee, Beverly Key began to read it aloud. He was captured by the imaginative illumination of reality he found it to create, and over the next two weeks he read all of the Narnia chronicles. Over the next two years he read all of Lewis’ fiction and a lot of his nonfiction, including “The Abolition of Man” and “A Grief Observed.” He found “The Screwtape Letters,” an inverted tale of a devilish tempter and his nephew, to be “marvelously funny and extremely thought-provoking” and “probably the most ethically challenging work I’ve ever read.”
Another acclaimed book is “The Discarded Image,” which explores the neglect of the imagination in the 20th century.
The show, except for a few paragraphs, is taken directly from Lewis’ autobiography and a variety of his other writings. It begins with him finishing a letter and discussing various topics before he begins a reading of “Screwtape Letters.”
“I want the audience to have the benefit to experience what it would have been like to have been in his presence, to have been around him, because I think the value of that is it can help make the writings of the author clearer, more clearly understood and/or appreciated. So I want to honor what he thought was valuable in telling the story, which is why I used basically the same through line of his autobiography,” Key explained. “A lot of people read C.S. Lewis after they see this or go back and reread him, which pleases me to no end.”
Newcott, who directed two previous “Chronicles of Narnia” productions for the Theatrical Outfit and is the Sally G. Tomlinson Artistic Director of Theatre for Youth at the Alliance Theatre, is delighted to focus on the creative, spiritual presence that created the Narnia classics. She is helping Key revisit the material in a fresh way in the “lovely” theater space, and loves how the show covers a variety of Lewis’ written work and also includes biographical material.
“It gives us a glimpse into his personal life and in this way the purpose behind his written work is also revealed in a most entertaining and meaningful way,” she said.
Newcott recently attended her mother-in-law’s funeral Mass and as a Catholic finds “listening to the words of this great man of faith in rehearsal has been so very comforting. It is during times of loss that I feel my faith and gratitude for my religion grows even stronger.”
Robert Hubbard, associate professor of theater and speech at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, has argued that “C.S. Lewis on Stage” “succeeds in the challenging task of portraying a writer heralded by Time as the most influential spokesman for Christianity in the English-speaking world.”
According to Hubbard, the play’s success stems from its focus on the humanity and humility of Lewis and the accessibility of Key’s theatrical portrayal.
Key and his wife converted to Catholicism in 1988. The actor finds that now as a Catholic that Lewis’ works are just as relevant. Key had once questioned that, if the Anglican church was good enough for Lewis, did he need “to go all the way to Rome,” but considered it relevant that the professor didn’t live in modern times and was born in 1898 rather than 1948. Lewis was a faithful participant in the Anglican Church.
“In his theology and philosophy he can go to a level that is foundational for people of all kinds of faith and communicate to them and to people of all kinds of political and economic levels,” Key said. “I think that’s why he so captivated the public in his BBC talks during World War II because, of course, in wartime, it’s such a terrible time for everyone, you attempt to ask the bigger questions than we do when we get more complacent in peaceful times. His ability to make very complex or potentially divisive issues simple or compelling to understand to millions was a great gift.”
Key is also inspired by Lewis’ charitable spirit, noting that he honored an agreement with a friend with whom he fought in World War I to care for his mother upon his death in battle. One of his former students, Kenneth Tynan, a cryptic, unbelieving theater critic, wrote in a journal about how kind Lewis was to him as a student. Key recalled, “Tynan was a student and going through a very hard time and Lewis was so patient with him and helpful to him and said if I ever decided to become a Christian it would be because of the example of someone like Lewis.” And he responded to his letters, penning over 4,000. One boy wrote that he was concerned that he loved the lion Aslan in the first Narnia book more than Jesus. Lewis wrote back within 10 days that anything he loved in Aslan first existed in Christ.
“It’s really a wonderful explanation of icons … We’re not worshipping them, but it’s a way they have to help us to imagine these things in a world of the unseen,” Key said.
When Key first found his own faith he had considered quitting theater and becoming a minister, but contemplating the breadth and depth of Lewis’ works helped him to realize that he could fully live out his own faith through the pursuit of truth as an actor.
“One of the things that helped me in making a decision to commit my life to the theater was the example of C.S. Lewis. With his brilliant mind, it could be argued, he should have spent his time and gifts on doing nothing but writing theology, but he devoted so much of his life to excellent scholarship and to the writing of fiction. And that was a great example to me,” he said. “His example to me of being a person of faith and that being a call to excellence (in all his work) was very, very meaningful to me and still is.”
Performances will be at Theatrical Outfit’s Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St., Atlanta, at the corner of Luckie and Forsyth streets. Evening shows are at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at (678) 528-1500, at the box office in the theater lobby or online at www.theatricaloutfit.org.