In a morally inverted world, where God is the “enemy” and Satan is “Our Father below,” the devil’s psychiatrist, Screwtape, tempts souls into spending an eternity in hell.
In 2005, Max McLean adapted C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” for the stage, and it ran for six months in Chicago before playing 309 performances at New York City’s Westside Theatre in 2010. The production received positive reviews from The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe, which called the show: “A none-to-subtle allegory on behalf of Christianity … loaded with clever commentary on human foibles.” McLean has taken the show on tour, starting in January in Los Angeles and scheduled to hit more than 50 cities nationwide. “Screwtape” is performed here with back-to-back shows at the Times-Union Center for Performing Arts on March 9.
McLean was born in Panama City, Panama, moving with his family to New York when he was 4. McLean’s theater career began in 1975 in college, where he attended drama school in London. He returned to New York for regional theater and one-person shows in the ’80s and ’90s. McLean is founder and president of the Fellowship for the Performing Arts (FPA), whose mission is to produce theater from a Christian worldview to engage a diverse audience.
Previously, the FPA produced a theatrical adaptation of the Gospel of Mark that won the Jeff Award, Chicago theater’s highest honor. It also adapted the Book of Genesis into a play that ran for months off-Broadway and toured the country.
McLean has a few other productions in the works: an adaptation of Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” and the story of Lewis’ spiritual journey from atheist to devout Christian.
“I was a fan of Lewis, now kind of on the verge of idolatry. Actually, I think Lewis is one of the authors who make our mission relatively easy,” McLean said. “He spends more time than almost any other writer, certainly of the last century, peeling back the material curtain and having the audacity and the imagination to give us a glimpse of what he thinks the supernatural world might look like.”
McLean attributes the success of “The Screwtape Letters” in part to the subject matter of the devil. When most people picture Satan, McLean says, they see either a caricature, complete with pitchfork, horns and tail, or a demonic being reminiscent of images from “The Exorcist.” Lewis wrote him as a smart, subtle and patient man who understands the inner workings of human nature.
“In the play, he’s quite likable, and he’s very good at his job,” McLean said.
Screwtape, the demonic psychiatrist, mesmerizes the audience as he lures his unsuspecting “patient” down the “soft, gentle path to hell.” At his feet is Screwtape’s assistant, Toadpipe, a grotesque demon who transforms her elastic body into the paragons of vices and characters Screwtape requires to keep his patient away from the “enemy.”
McLean originated the role of this production’s Screwtape, but the character has been portrayed by a handful of actors over the years. Brent Harris plays the demonic psychiatrist in the Jacksonville performance, fresh off his role as Scar in the production “The Lion King.”
Aside from making the character of Screwtape charming, confident and relaxed so that he’s believable, the most challenging part of adapting the play from the book was the density of ideas.
“When you’re reading the book, you can kind of take your time and figure it out, but on stage they come pretty fast and furious,” McLean said. “So we had to edit in a way that maintains Lewis’ style of writing, but thin it out a little bit so the audience could get it more quickly.”
Adding drama to scripture allows the audience to better understand and glean more from theological literature. Scripture has imaginative power that McLean said translates well to the stage.
“The show is really hard to get to the bottom of, in the sense that the constellation of ideas that it projects and communicates is deep. It’s been the most challenging role that I’ve ever played. The reason that we’re still playing it is not that we’re pushing the issue; it still finds an audience wherever it goes,” McLean said.
According to McLean, the show is just as entertaining to those who come from different religious backgrounds as to viewers with no religious background at all. He argues that human nature stays the same regardless of place, culture or belief system. The humor in the play comes from Lewis’ ability to hold a mirror up to the audience, which makes people more self-aware. It can be uncomfortable, however.
“We tend to let ourselves off the hook pretty easily,” McLean said. “This production makes you look at yourself objectively. I think that’s a profound thing.”