Godsboffins! "Platonic Promiscuity"

Oxonian "Inklings" star in "Tolkien," a three hour theological thriller, from Pacific Theatre 

Homiletics meets hermaneutics on fantasy borderlands. Images: Middle Earth and Narnia

In a hole in the ground there lived a sextet of literary boffins. Not a nasty, blood-drenched World War I foxhole, nor yet a World War II bomb crater. It was an inter-war boffin hole in the hallowed ground of Oxford. And that meant comfort…

…tweedy, oak-panelled, port-swilling comfort, as enjoyed by high-table University dons in the relatively peaceful hiatus of the 1930’s. Playwright/director Ron Reed lovingly recreated this privileged milieu in his cerebral Tolkien, which premiered at Pacific Theatre this week and runs through June 11th.

Reed also wound up starring in the title role of his own production, since the intended star, veteran actor John Innes, suddenly took ill on the eve of opening night, with uncertain prospects for recovery. As a last minute stand-in, Reed had no choice but to read from a hand-held script for most of the 160 minute, Three Act marathon.

He did so with verve and authority – after all, over the course of a six-year gestation period, he himself wrote all the lines. Even so, it’s a lot to recite from memory in such a talky play that’s so focused on one central figure. If he continues in the role, as expected, he’ll doubtless get the speeches down by heart in short order.

Meanwhile, though, Reed’s stopgap expedient of walking around with his nose in a manuscript worked out surprisingly well, emphasizing a certain bookish, buffered aspect of his character. We first meet Tolkien as devoutly Catholic fuddy-duddy, a professor of Anglo-Saxon and a dictionary etymologist of Germanic word origins (with a specialty in the letter ‘W’).

Tapped by a younger and more charismatic don, C.S. Lewis (Ian Farthing), to pinch-hit as an undergraduate tutor, Tolkien shyly reveals his nerdy private hobby. It turns out he has a drawerful of meticulously invented languages and landscapes peopled by a whole cryptozoology of more or less hominid creatures.

Lewis, utterly beguiled, cajoles his newfound friend to mine this imaginative Mother Lode into some sort of publishable manuscript. Tolkien, for his part, finding Lewis so thrillingly sensitized to the power of myth, sets out to win him him over to the most salvific Uhr-Myth of all: Christianity.

In these projects they both succeed, extravagantly. Over the next three decades, Tolkien expands his desk drawer jottings into the majestic, multi-volume Middle Earth canon that’s now so celebrated (and bankable) worldwide. And Lewis, the fashionably atheistic Oxford intellectual, turns into a fervent Christian apologist with his own bevy of allegorical fantasy novels.

Midwifing these born-again self-reinventions is a supporting cast of once-famous (and now largely forgotten) Oxford literati, the “Inklings.” They meet weekly in Lewis’ rooms or a local pub to read and critique each other’s works-in-progress.

Sheet anchor of the group is Lewis’ elder brother, Warnie (Tim Dixon), an ex-military duffer who mainly drains teacups and ale pints between dyspeptic asides. Then there’s Roy Campbell (Simon Webb), a pentameter rhymester and swashbuckling Falangist sympathizer. Rounding out the crew is Charles Williams (Anthony Ingram), prolific purveyor of “spiritual potboilers” that promote his rather arcane doctrine of “co-inherence.” What these men all hold in common is a fervent Christianity that seeks narrative expression.

But, as Oxford’s skies darken again in the onset and aftermath of World War II, stylistic and doctrinal differences strain even the closest of friendships. Lewis, an Anglican, can’t abide Tolkien’s tolerance for the Catholic romanticism of Campbell, whom he considers a poseur and crypto-Fascist. This strikes Tolkien as sheer “Ulsterman bigotry,” compounded by the “Platonic promiscuity” of Lewis’ embrace of Williams’ New Agey claptrap.

Their feud appals Mrs. Tolkien (Erla Faye Forsyth), who mourns her husband’s spurning of his “first and dearest friend.” But Reed’s Tolkien comes off as more and more curmudgeonly as he ages in the course of the decades-spanning action of the play. All the more saddening in contrast to Farthing’s unstintingly generous Lewis and Dixon’s droll and doughty Warnie.

Ingram and Webb, as Williams and Campbell, respectively, present genuinely perplexing characters, but it’s a little hard to place them if you’re not a priori steeped in fantasy literature and sectarian theology. Britishisms and stage accents don’t help, either.

Still, the crescendo and diminuendo of these spiritual and intellectual bonds is dynamic enough to sustain the play. And the stagecraft is superb. With a series of rolling tables and chairs, set designer Drew Facey has created a fluid and versatile performance space ideally adapted to Pacific Theatre’s stadium style black box layout.

Stage manager Jethelo Cabilete’s crew of brisk stagehands are a choreographic joy to watch in its own right, shifting scenes in plain sight as the dialogue hardly misses a beat. Presiding over the whole scene is a sculpted larch tree so handsome that the characters – poets, after all – periodically stand back and stare just to admire its beauty.

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