Popular entertainment with a Christian message may be heading to extinction in an increasingly secular U.S., but one C.S. Lewis classic is alive and well in America's small and mid-size cities and towns.
"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" has been a common production of amateur acting troupes in the United States in recent years. Based on a novel in Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" series, it is also an off-Broadway play.
Lewis set out to disprove Christianity, but came to faith instead.
He wrote "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" as an allegory of the saving work of Jesus.
Of late high schools, churches and community centers have presented plays based on his story in such places as Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Charlestown, Indiana.
I attended a weekend showing at the Muncie Civic Theatre, also in Indiana, where the play is running until September 7.
Muncie is a city of some 70,000 people in the northeast part of the state, about an hour by car from Indianapolis.
BALL STATE UNIVERSITY
Incorporated in 1865, Muncie is the home of Ball State University, a school with more than 20,000 students, mostly from Indiana.
The Ball Brothers, local businessmen who ran a company producing the popular canning jars, helped found the college in the early 20th century.
The school was well-represented in this production.
Todd Sandman, the director of the play, is a graduate, as is actress Katie Chase, who plays the "The White Witch."
I learned of the local production of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" as I walked past the downtown Muncie Civic Theater one night last week.
Downtown Muncie speaks of a faded prosperous past. However, like many U.S. Rust Belt cities Muncie has had to adjust to the loss of industry in recent years.
The nearby residential areas are a mix of stately homes and boarded-up houses.
Now a resident living near the downtown, one local told me the area was "dead."
I decided to attend the Saturday night showing of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" after reading of the play in the Ball State newspaper, the Daily News.
The article opened with the statement, "When everything is in chaos, what can you control?"
It interested me because I report regularly on world chaos relating to Christians, and I thought I might learn something.
After arriving early, I purchased a $15 ticket from an enthusiastic theater worker.
I was surprised how full the theater was. Almost the entire middle section of the 460-seat playhouse was packed.
The crowd was casually dressed and included several families.
Young children scampered up and down the aisles.
The stage design was intriguing. It sits inside an opening shaped like an inverted horseshoe and has a large mural of storybook characters as a backdrop. Rounded stage lights dot the entire horseshoe.
The atmosphere in the theater is one of a past era. The building dates back to the early 20th century and was once a vaudeville house.
Sandman took the stage before the show and did a little promotional work for the volunteer organization, funded through donations.
In the program, he said he was reminded of his own childhood as he read Lewis's novel.
"Which made me think; these children have just been evacuated.
WORLD WAR II
"So how would a child, during the evacuations in Britain during World War II, use their imagination to cope with such fearful realities?
"Bombs being dropped on their neighborhoods; being separated from their parents, knowing they might never see them again; being sent on a train, with one suitcase and a gas mask to the countryside to live with people they don't know, facing possible separation from their siblings, and everything safe, comforting, familiar."
The director decided to tell the story through the eyes of pre-teen Lucy, a child who evacuates with her siblings to the English countryside during the war.
Lucy discovers Narnia after she enters a wardrobe in the house where she is staying.
She leads brothers Peter and Edmund and older sister Susan into the land where it is always winter, a place controlled by the evil White Witch.
"Through her imagination we get to see how her mind works to make things bearable, how she mentally deals with the war and its many possible consequences," Sandman said.
To make it easier for Lucy to accept the reality of her harsh wartime existence, he said he gave the story a "fantastical face."
"All characters in Narnia are in mask [by the world renowned mask-maker Jonathan Becker, a Ball State acting professor] painted to be industrial and metallic, but also similar to 1940s Christmas ornaments, and therefore comforting [Christmas being a child's favorite time of year]," the director said.
The imagination theme is also developed through the costuming. Instead of dressing the Narnia creatures as typical animals, Sandman had them wear clothes and military uniforms fashionable in the 1940s.
"There are of course the Christian themes that run through the play as well as Aslan's death and ultimate resurrection that factor into the show," he said.
For an amateur play, some of the acting was superb. A standout was supporting cast member Scott McFadden, who played Mr. Beaver, a curmudgeonly yet kind character who helps the children battle the White Witch.
McFadden is a librarian at Ball State and a veteran of the community stage in central Indiana.
Chase's portrayal of the self-styled Queen of Narnia grew on me.
She became more and wicked as the play progressed. By intermission, her eyes were flaring towards the audience in hostility, a result of her skill and the work of the lighting crew.
After the play, the audience could mingle with the actors in the lobby.
A highlight was greeting Gracie Evans, the girl who played Lucy.
I asked the Ms. Evans her age.
"Eleven," she replied, excited.
"What I find so lovely about the 1940s is the idea of women empowerment through World War II, a power which Lucy ultimately finds within herself, starting in her own imagination," said Sandman.
He said that in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" Lucy and her siblings live in a world where they not only have a voice, but power to take back a land stolen by an evil dictator.
"I hope this story reminds us all, as we continue to face a world at war, that we all have a voice, no matter what our age, gender, ethnicity, with ideas that deserve to be heard, and that can and do make a difference," he said.
I left the Muncie Civic Theatre feeling that Sandman and others like him are making a difference in a country faced by chaos in many areas.
For a couple hours I was given the chance to muse on a story of redemption and view a part of America that is not given much publicity these days, a place where wholesome entertainment is valued.
Who said Muncie is dead?