Taproot Theater returns with The Great Divorce

Nolan Palmer and David Dorrian in The Great Divorce. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

If getting into Heaven was as simple as leaving Hell behind, who would choose to stay in Hell? That’s the question at the heart of The Great Divorce, on stage at Taproot Theater through February 27. Based on a story by C.S. Lewis, the play is a fitting choice for the first production at the newly restored theater that was severely damaged in a fire set by the arsonist who plagued the Greenwood neighborhood three months ago. Lewis’s religious views were a major influence on his writing career, but the story is equally accessible to the non-theologically inclined who can substitute being one’s best self or worse in place of Heaven and Hell. Beset by trauma, one can choose to wallow in the familiar discomfort of one’s own misery or strike out into the challenging unknown in search of joy.

Getting into Heaven, as George MacDonald (Nolan Palmer) explains to C.S. Lewis (David Dorrian), is simple, but it isn’t easy.

The story begins with C.S. Lewis finding himself in a vague grey town which we soon realize is Hell. Lewis joins a motley group of characters standing in line for a bus which delivers them to the foothills of Heaven. There they discover that although it’s the most beautiful place any of them have seen, it’s also a difficult place as they soon discover themselves to be ghosts who have to struggle even to stand on the grass since everything around them is much more solid.

Lewis observes as various solid beings approach the passengers one at a time, people they knew in life who have come to show them the path to the mountains where they will live in eternal peace. Each of the prospective coaches promises that although the journey will be difficult at first, as it progresses it will become easier and easier as the ghosts become more solid themselves.

Among the encounters Lewis observes are an artist who would rather stay in Hell than go to a Heaven where nobody is famous because everyone is on equal ground, a Bishop more interested in debating the notion of Heaven than actually seeing it and several others who cling to their pain even knowing that it is their doom. Ten actors play 25 characters in the play, quickly and marvelously shedding one skin for a new one. It is a credit to the cast that even when their scenes were close together, each character was fresh and new. While all of the cast deserve praise, Faith Russell and Sam Vance were particularly outstanding in keeping characters fully human who could easily slide into cliche. Compassion is one of the hardest emotions to portray, but Vance nails it as the brother of a mother whom he must order to let go of the grief that has come to define her. Russell moves smoothly from the ultimate shrew to the essence of pure light.

David Dorrian, whose Lewis both narrates the tale and propels the plot, is superb, using his voice and body to transform a minimalist stage design into a richly textured world.

Last Friday’s opening night performance began with a pre-show presentation by Artistic Director Scott Nolte of the theater’s thanks to Seattle Fire Department Assistant Chief A.D. Vickery and onsite foreman Steve Timian for their efforts on behalf of the theater and the Greenwood neighborhood.

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