In Dante's Inferno, hell is presented as an ever-deepening series of torture chambers where sinners are subjected to poetic and highly theatrical punishments. (Gluttons, for example, are denied food and water, buried in putrid soil, and perpetually ripped apart by bloody teeth.) In C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, hell isn't nearly as garish. Lewis swaps Italian overkill for English reserve and presents the inferno as nothing more than a gray city where grumpy people stand around waiting for the bus.
At the start of The Great Divorce, an Englishman named C. S. Lewis abruptly finds himself in this grumpy, gray city and begins the journey of his afterlife, wandering through a variety of scenes depicting the damned—which, in Lewis's generous imagination, means those unable or unwilling to release themselves into heaven. Originally published as a novella in 1945, the implicitly Christian fantasia has been taken up by the implicitly Christian Taproot Theatre, which is presenting the stage adaptation by George Drance and the Magis Theatre Company as the first show since the October 2009 fire that left Taproot's Greenwood space with extensive smoke and water damage.
Lewis's speculative fiction is loaded with just the sort of tastefully challenging ideas you'd hope for from a faith-based theater company. (Among Divorce's hell-dwellers are a priest trapped by intellectual vanity and a grieving mother stuck in selfish fury.) But despite the efforts of its talented 10-person cast, Taproot's Divorce is hampered by ineffective theatrics. In Lewis's book, the denizens of hell find walking on non-hell terrain to be unbearably painful; on Taproot's stage, this means a bunch of actors who appear to be suffering from ill-placed bunions. In Lewis's heaven, people are naturally, eternally at home; under Scott Nolte's direction, the heavenly come off like an endorphin-drunk Up with People troupe, clad in neon pastels. Devoid of theatrical frisson, the steady march of talky, pedantic scenes is stultifying. By the midpoint of the 90-minute show, at least one first-row audience member was as lost in sleep as our narrator is revealed to be at the play's end.