Acacia Theatre Company

Charles Williams on Stage: A Reflection by Dr. Sørina Higgins

“I had the very great privilege of seeing The House by the Stable and Grab and Grace performed this evening by Acacia Theatre. How marvelous to see the play come to life in the bodies, voices, faces, and movements of the actors! It was performed in a quite intimate space–seating for 99 people–and where I was seated on the aisle end of the middle front row, I was inches away from the cast members, practically on the stage itself, immersed in the action. How intense!

Many people asked me how many of CW’s plays I’ve seen before and were surprised to hear the answer: “None!” Indeed, I’ve long been disappointed that I wrote a dissertation about, oh, maybe 4 dozen plays, and I’ve never seen ANY of them performed before tonight. I’ve had readings of them, which is awesome, but there’s nothing like bodies moving in choreography on a stage, their voices in my ears, breathing the same air, my eyes taking them in without screen mediation. It’s incarnational.

And Incarnation is the point of these two plays: “substance is love, love substance,” Mary says, closing House, and Faith echoes her in Grab: “The Peace be with you, / and Love which is all substance in all things made.” The word “Love” was one of CW’s names for God, so Faith’s line literally means that God has become substance, has become flesh, has become matter. Therefore, Man’s choices matter. Although giving up Pride whom he loved is hard and bitter “agony,” he does it, by Grace.

I want to praise the Acacia Theater cast, director, crew, et al for their remarkable work on these strange, profound plays. I’m very impressed. They brought to life these hybrid medieval-modernist works with verve and aplomb.

Kudos to Maura Atwood for her transcendentally tranquil Mary, her blue eyes astonishing, drawn out by the costume designer Marie Wilke’s clever matching color touches. I don’t know whether Maura is a Jedi Master or practicing mystic in real life, but she sure was on stage, and her worn, mismatched clothes and work boots were unable to detract from the pure spiritual flame shining through her. That heavenly azure was repeated in Faith’s costume, its lapis lazuli color contrasting with its no-nonsense business cut: and those contrasting hues bring out the competing qualities of uncompromising sternness and celestial peace in her character. Molly Kempfer managed both to perfection in her posture, poise, delivery of lines, and the poignancy of her final offer to Man: “When you want me, if you want me, I will come / quicker than you can think.”

Joshua Biatch and Shannon Netteshiem Klein were dynamic and riveting as Man and Pride, playing the complex, tense chemistry between the characters beautifully. Pride is a particularly difficult role, because the character herself is always playing roles, so she needs to perform on multiple levels simultaneously. There were great nuances of face and gesture, which my proximity (CW would say “propinquity,” silly fellow) enable me to appreciate. Man’s role is exhausting and challenging, and Josh played it with great energy and fervor. He made me cry at the end of Grab, when he gives up his Pride whom he loves. The choice was agonizing: Faith and Pride cannot live together, and there were lines I found convicting and difficult, such as: “I owe her, after all, a great deal, / and she understands me, she soothes me.” How impossible it seems to give up something or someone soothing or understanding (in their case, with kisses and pleasure exchanged and enjoyed), all because of a vow to Immanuel? Isn’t it easy to think that Faith and whichever of the Seven Deadly Sins we love to fondle can somehow co-exist? But they cannot. We must break our own hearts and give them up.

Jason Will as Hell was perfect, professional, flawless, crisp, controlled, and really rather terrifying. He’s got powerful physical presence on stage and glorious diction. Indeed, he made Hell a little too attractive and persuasive, which I suppose is part of the point! Someone asked him after whether he found it hard to play the character of Hell. I forget his answer, but I thought of CS Lewis’s reply to a similar question about writing from a demon’s POV in The Screwtape Letters: He said something like you basically just let the worst of yourself out, like the self that’s contrary to sanctification, and let it run. I’m afraid I’d find it all too easy to play Hell. Or Pride. Or Lust.

Anyway. Michael D. DeLong brought a beautiful speaking voice to Gabriel along with fabulous physical and facial nuances to convey angelical power, and Zackary Henke did an admirable job of animating CW’s very weird, “puckish” Grace. The Director, Elaine Wyler, is to be commended for understanding these complex plays so thoroughly and Matt Norby as Stage Manger for bringing them to life energetically and persuasively! And to all of them for memorizing and speaking the POETRY beautifully!

I loved, loved, loved being there, meeting the cast (I feel like I know them all already), talking with Janet Peterson, Artistic Director, about some other plays she might want to add to future seasons, and participating in the talkback panel afterwards. The audience was deeply engaged, laughing or groaning at all the right places and asking good questions. I could tell I wasn’t the only one whose conscience was convicted by the work. It’s all too easy to get into a Williamsian tangle in which one’s secret life contradicts one’s public Christian persona, living hypocritically instead of honestly, so how strange that he should write a play condemning the very kind of moral compromise he himself practiced for decades. It just goes to show that God uses broken instruments to speak His truths–because there are no other kinds.

I hope to write more throughout the weekend about the themes, ideas, staging details, and more. I’m giving a bit of a pre-show talk tomorrow, too, so maybe I’ll summarize that when I get a chance. Many thanks to Acacia and especially Jason Will for hosting my visit to Milwaukee, and to all of you who supported me on this adventure!”

Photos: Dr. Sørina Higgins

Read her full blog, and learn more about Charles Williams by clicking here.