A FEW MONTHS AGO I wrote a column about a really excellent play, “Martin Luther on Trial.” I also spoke about the play at Sunday Mass. I was surprised – and I admit, delighted – at the number of people who told me that they went to see the play on my recommendation. Apparently, those people loved the play as much as I did.
Now I have another play to recommend: “The Most Reluctant Convert,” a one-man show at the Acorn Theatre on 42nd St. Almost all the dialogue in the play is taken from the writings of C.S. Lewis, who, of course, was that most reluctant convert.
The play, like “Martin Luther on Trial,” is being put on by the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA). Right now, FPA is the theatre group that most interests me. Its members are trying to do something that very much needs doing. The following is a statement of their mission:
“FPA’s objective is to entertain and engage its patrons by telling stories from a Christian worldview that can capture the imagination of a diverse audience.
“Our process begins with careful attention to selecting works we think can accomplish this objective. Then, we strive to execute our artistic vision to the highest level of excellence that our budgets will allow.”
I suspect that any Christian who is interested in theatre can understand why FPA’s mission is so important. This is not a group that is out to proselytize. If that was the goal, I suspect that their artistic offerings would suffer. With perhaps the best intentions in the world, the group would put on plays that would be preachy and not good art. The words in the mission statement – “execute our artistic vision to the highest level of excellence” – are crucial. Just because a work of art has a religious theme or deals with a religious topic does not make it a good work of art. Creators of art may have wonderful motives and admirable goals but that does not necessarily translate into a good work of art. Junk is junk no matter how lofty the intentions of the artist. I have seen several of FPA’s productions. All have successfully incarnated the group’s vision and mission.
In “The Most Reluctant Convert” C.S. Lewis is played by Max McLean, FPA founder and artistic director, and an exceptionally talented artist. I have seen him in three plays and have the greatest admiration for his work. Throughout the one-man play, which runs about 80 minutes, McLean becomes C.S. Lewis. I became very aware of this when McLean came out after the play ended to answer questions from the audience. There was absolutely no resemblance between the actor who had “become” Lewis for the play, and the actor who sat on stage fielding questions. Of course, the lack of resemblance was partly due to the makeup that McLean wore for the play, but the difference was mostly due to McLean’s skill at getting into the skin of Lewis.
The Playbill for “The Most Reluctant Convert” quotes a comment made by an atheist who wrote that he appreciated FPA’s commitment to creating good art and avoiding overt preachiness. Reacting to the comment, McLean wrote the following:
“Such feedback is reassuring. Art hints at the deeper structures of reality. FPA desires to create theatre that contributes to a better understanding of it. To do that requires honest clear-eyed storytelling that entertains and engages its audiences. If a work doesn’t do that, regardless of intent, it really doesn’t matter what else it does.”
In the fall, FPA is going to present William Nicholson’s play “Shadowlands” based on C. S. Lewis’ “A Grief Observed.” I first saw that play on television. It was magnificent. Later it appeared on Broadway, and had lost some of its religious depth. Eventually, it was made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and it had lost all religious significance. A reviewer of the film in the Catholic magazine Commonweal said that the film was a tearjerker for secular humanists. I’m confident FPA will do an excellent job of presenting the religious depth of Nicholson’s play.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).