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Issue Date:  May 5, 2006

Jesuit actor plans to stage Lewis' The Great Divorce


Like hundreds of actors in New York, George Drance holds down another job while pursuing his acting career. Unlike his contemporaries, though, Drance doesn’t fill in as a temp or wait tables. In fact, his other work is as much a vocation as is his acting. As a Jesuit priest, Fr. Drance integrates his two worlds with the ease of a skilled performer.

“I pray before every performance, sometimes by myself and sometimes the group I am with will ask me to lead them,” he said. “I dedicate my performance to God and try to focus on emptying myself so the Spirit can find a clear channel.”

On a sunny, cold January afternoon, Fr. Drance, 43, has just come from an audition for a commercial and in a couple hours will try out for a new off-Broadway play. In between auditions he sits on an overstuffed sofa in a lounge two floors above the off-Broadway theater he is hoping to book for his latest effort at combining religious and theatrical expression. The actor/priest is adapting C.S. Lewis’ 1946 novel The Great Divorce for the stage. If all goes well, it will have its world premiere here, at Theatre 315, in January 2007.

“It’s the first book in my life I ever picked up and could not put down until I finished it,” he said. “It was on my high school reading list for senior year.”

In Lewis’ fairy tale-like story of salvation, Fr. Drance finds accessible characters, universal themes and poignant situations.

“His understanding of human nature and how we create our own personal hells is so full of pathos. You really feel for these people because you have friends and family in similar situations.”

Presented as a dream, the novel takes a man on a journey toward heaven where he observes fellow travelers whose anger, skepticism and worldly interests cause them to turn from God’s grace and return to earth, which they will find has become hell.

“We all know someone who is trapped by the past or by regret or by bitterness or ego and these are the things that keep us in our own personal hells.”

Fr. Drance, who teaches acting as an artist-in-residence at Fordham University, received permission from the Lewis estate to adapt the novel as a play and is developing it with members of Magis, the theatrical company he founded with friends from Columbia University, from which he holds an MFA in acting. The work will be presented as a staged reading in June at the summer leadership conference of Christians in Theatre Arts, which will be held in New York.

For the final version, Fr. Drance hopes to engage world-renowned puppeteer Ralph Lee to create puppets of the lizard and stallion featured in the book. He sees the piece opening with actors and audience members standing together in a dimly lit theater, waiting for the bus that will take them to heaven. The actors will then move to the brightly lit stage, which will have little to no scenery to better emphasize the people’s stories.

In the 128-page novel, Lewis makes a no-nonsense case for Christ as the only means of salvation, featuring a character who on earth had believed in universal salvation but is told by his spirit guide that that will not be the case. While Lewis’ works are especially popular with evangelical Christians, Fr. Drance does not consider the works conservative.

“His theology is sound without being self-righteous,” Fr. Drance said. “What he’s talking about in the work is really an examination of human nature rather than an examination of divine nature.”

In this he sees parallels with his Jesuit training.

“What I know of the discernment of spirits is from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius and they’re about growing in awareness of ways in which the spirit of good moves and ways in which the spirit of evil moves. There are people in the story who could be case studies for various aspects of discernment.”

One of his favorite lines in the book comes from one of the spiritual guides: “We know nothing of religion here: We think only of Christ.”

“In the book, salvation is offered universally. What prevents people from accepting the invitation is entirely personal. It’s a timeless message.”

It’s also timely, Fr. Drance believes.

“We’re at a time of an incredible capacity for self-deception and incredible selfishness,” he said. “We’ve cultivated an ability to justify certain actions that cause so much misery for others in the name of protecting ourselves. That attitude is constantly challenged in this work. We’ve made the universe very small. The book asks us to consider it as vastly as God sees it.”

Retta Blaney, NCR’s theater reviewer, lives in New York. She is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors.

Related Web sites
Christians in Theatre Arts
Magis Theatre Company

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2006

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