Anthony Lawton is currently starring in THE GREAT DIVORCE from February 7-12 at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow streets.
Since starting in 1994, Philly's Lantern Theater has devoted itself to smartly literate productions. But with its annual run of the Christian-based writings of C.S. Lewis — courtesy thespian Anthony Lawton — and the hasty return of David Ives' Judaic-themed New Jerusalem, there's a theological pattern forming.
How did the Lantern come to focus on philosophical and religious themed theater? Maybe it's that they hold court in the hallowEd Halls of St. Stephen's Theater (née Church).
Artistic Director Charles McMahon skirts a direct answer to that question with something a teacher once offered him — four fundamental systems for understanding the world: science, philosophy, art and religion. "The great thing about theater is that I don't have to choose," he says. "All fields of investigation and thought are fair game. The greatest drama is that of the human mind struggling to come to grips with those things that lie just beyond the border of comprehension."
McMahon credits seeing Peter Brook's The Mahabarata, a Hindu analog of the Bible, as a revelation on how theater and religion join hands. "I'm not Hindu, but the themes of Brook's play were so universal that when it was over I felt I had grown in understanding of myself, and perhaps counter-intuitively, felt a deeper connection to and appreciation for my own religious tradition," says McMahon, a troubled Catholic at odds with what he perceives as hubris with the institutional church. "If I'm to be honest with myself, I have to acknowledge the inspiring and admirable things along with the despicable ones.
The questions are universal and demanding. In Lewis' Great Divorce (and its original adaptation by Lawton) the narrator must choose between the comforts of the bad and the challenges of the good before entering Heaven or Hell. Ives' New Jerusalem — which returns in September — looks at theologian/philosopher Baruch de Spinoza, a Portuguese Jew living in Amsterdam, and his dictums on the infinite nature of the world at a time of personal upheaval and potential excommunication. "I used to obsess over what Spinoza addresses in the play, particularly the question of when I try to think of God, how much am I just looking at myself, at the inside of my own imagination," says McMahon.
He finds that Lewis (through Lawton) is merciless in depicting hypocrisy in action in The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. "But at the same time forgiving, as if he's holding up a mirror and seeing those faults in himself."
That the Lantern is re-doing New Jerusalem soon after its initial run (October and November, 2011) along with its annual hosting of Lawton-and-Lewis comes down to one thing for McMahon: "Even if we believe there's nothing at all, the idea of what happens next is still a compelling mystery."
"I'm sure Charles can tell you better than I, but, if you ask my opinion, it seems like the audiences for Screwtape and Great Divorce presented evidence to Lantern that they could do something like New Jerusalem and get a strong response," says Lawton, an actor, writer and director. The previous successes of his takes on Lewis (four go-rounds for each play since 2002) proved that Lantern could host intelligent theater dedicated to holy topicality.
"The people who come see the Lewis works are often people who don't see other plays. They are deeply interested in questions of spirit and eternity, ontology or metaphysics, and they seem to want explore these questions — which are central to their lives — in a social milieu other than church, class, or prayer. They get word that something smart and spiritual is coming up in a play, and they want a night out."
Religious thought was often missing in Philadelphia theater before the Catholic Lawton brought Christian writings to bear in his work. He first did Shel Silverstein's theologically rich The Devil and Billy Markham while at grad school at Temple U in 1992. Though no saint, he noted a deep-seated mistrust and antipathy, in virtually every theater person he met at that time, towards anything that had to do with religion.
"Many were hostile to Christianity over questions concerning sexuality — usually homosexuality, marriage, or abortion — and had, I thought, thrown out the baby with the bathwater," says Lawton. "Lewis allows one to approach questions of religion without necessarily striking a superstitious note. He knows that he is addressing 20th-century skeptics."