By MARLENE WEYAND
Max McLean’s stage production of C. S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” played to sell-out crowds in Houston this past weekend. McLean’s voice, coupled with his robust acting abilities, made for a superb Screwtape.
McLean and Jeffrey Fiske adapted and directed for the stage one of Lewis’ masterpieces, this one set in the pit of Hell, which chronicles the training of a young demon named Wormwood by his “uncle” Screwtape, also known as His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape. The “Letters” of the title include correspondence between nephew and uncle regarding one of Wormwood’s assignments: a young man on Earth identified as the Patient. The production is narrated by Screwtape in its entirety. The summaries of Wormword’s progress are woven into the narrated instructions of his uncle, epitomized in the book’s keenest observation: “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
The power of Lewis’ work is in its raw observation and the readers’ subsequent realization that there is a spiritual plan by unseen forces whose most powerful tool is keeping Truth from humans: “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”
The sheer power and enormity of Lewis’ work was somewhat diminished, however, by the fanciful set and the playful Toadpipe (respectably played by Karen Wright), Screwtape’s secretary. McLean and Fiske risk trivializing Lewis’ work with these distractions. C.S. Lewis fans don’t need it and those looking only to be amused may possibly leave saying “So what?” Only needed for their brilliant adaptation is a chair and a spotlight; Lewis’ profundity to penetrate the minds and spirits of the audience will do the rest.
The Houston audience comprised two worldviews: the intellectual and the Christian. From the feedback during the post-production informance with McLean, it appears the intellectual was grateful for a comfortable characterization of the incredibly evil Screwtape, with lots of tittering and snickering at the protagonist’s observations. Regarding the Christians’ expectations (trying to avoid falling into the trap of spiritual pride that Screwtape aptly pokes fun at when speaking of Christians), I will say that their worldview is not of this world. Subsequently, the straining of Lewis’ work may have left them, shall we say, hungry for more.
“Screwtape” was produced by The Fellowship for the Performing Arts and Walt and Anne Waldie and William and Bridget Coughran. The production was inspired by Tony Lawton’s stage adaptation. For more information, http://www.screwtapeonstage.com/aboutus.