Please Allow Me to Re-Introduce Myself: The Screwtape Letters Returns

Karen Wright (foreground) and Max McLean in The Screwtape Letters. (Jonny Knight)

Actor and dramatist Max McLean was thinking hard about hubris versus humility even before he had a hit show on his hands.

“According to [C.S.] Lewis — and he gets most of his ideas from John Milton —pride is the first sin, the real sin,” McLean says. “All other sins are byproducts of that.”

The star of The Screwtape Letters — a wickedly seductive adaptation of Lewis’s 1942 novella about a senior demon in Hell advising an apprentice demon on Earth as he tries to effect a man’s damnation — has reason to be cautious. His show, which is of course about the very process by which a man may be corrupted, is enjoying boffo success. It begins a return engagement at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Landsburgh Theatre tonight.

Since it last played that venue in the spring of 2008, Screwtape has toured from San Francisco to Phoenix to Ft. Lauderdale. In Chicago, it filled the Mercury Theatre for six months — four times as long as initially booked.

Screwtape has been very good to us,” allows McLean, reached by phone last week. McLean is artistic director of the Morristown, NJ-based Fellowship for the Performing Arts, a theatre company devoted to works with a Christian worldview — i.e., ones that don’t often catch fire with even secular audiences the way Screwtape has. Among the one-man shows he’d tackled previously was Mark’s Gospel, a retelling of the Book of Genesis from the creation through the sacrifice of Isaac.

It was that show that prompted “Screwtape” director and cowriter Jeffrey Fiske to contact him with the idea of bringing Lewis’s epistolic classic to the stage. The pair debuted their first version of the show at New York’s Theatre 315 in January 2006. Slated for three weeks, it ran for ten. But McLean knew it could be better.

“Frankly, it wasn’t that good,” McLean recalls. “We were too enamored with too much of it.”

After that production closed, McLean and Fiske spent a year and half tightening the script, commissioning a new design team, and recasting the role of Screwtape’s beastly assistant, Toadpipe, the only other character who appears onstage.

Their most daunting task? Editing C.S. Lewis.

Some tweaks were obvious: References to war with Germany were updated to address the War on Terror. Much riskier was the job of streamlining Lewis’s verbiage without compromising its depth or elegance. “We had to take Lewis’s 60-word sentences and make them 18-word sentences,” McLean explains. “And allow the acting to fill in the rest.”

Lewis, an Oxford and Cambridge professor perhaps now most remembered for his Chronicles of Narnia allegorical fantasy novels, published The Screwtape Letters in serialized form in London’s Guardian newspaper at the height of World War II. “He lived in a very high academic world,” McLean points out. “He knew his worldview would be kind of out of step with the people he hung out with.”

The author reflected in 1959 that writing Screwtape had been a queasy project, “all dust, grit, thrist, and itch.”

McLean admits that his experience has been rather different.

“I love playing Screwtape,” he laughs. “I mean, good night! It’s just so, so much fun. It allows me play someone who’s much smarter than me, who has a much better vocabulary than I do. He’s kind of a peacock. And I can access, for, I think, really good reasons, the pride that I have in me.”

The Screwtape Letters runs through Jan. 10. Tickets are available here.

A version of this piece appears in today’s Examiner.

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