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Max McLean Brilliant in Theatrical Adaptation of CS Lewis' Screwtape Letters

By Deacon Keith Fournier
May 3rd, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Max McLean's presence, vocal cadence, facial and bodily expression and theatrical talent captivates the audience. He inserts you right into the center of a morally inverted universe by reaching into the center of our human emotions, the heart. That is what makes good theatre so good - and this is truly good theatre.

NORFOLK,VA (Catholic Online) - I had the pleasure of attending the first night's performance of the theatrical adaptation of CS Lewis' masterpiece on the Moral Life, the Screwtape Letters, in Norfolk, Virginia. Max McLean was brilliant in his portrayal of Screwtape. Screwtape is the demon uncle who mentors his nephew/student named "Wormwood" on the task of temptation.

The book contains a series of letters between the two which are intended to assist the student in his assigned task of tempting an unnamed man who is  called the "patient", away from the path of faith, love and virtue. These letters from Screwtape contain "affectionate" instructions. However, one soon finds there is no true affection in these letters, in spite of their ending salutations. That is because there is no love in Hell.

From the moment this superb production begins, Max McLean commands both the stage and the character. His captivating presence, vocal cadence, facial and bodily expression and theatrical talent captivate the audience. He never lets go, offering a ninety minute experience that changes the participant. He inserts you right into the center of a morally inverted universe created by the genius of CS Lewis in his masterful treatment of the meaning of life and the corrosive reality of evil.

McLean does this not by appealing as much to the mind - as done so well in the book - but by reaching into the center of our human emotions, the heart. That is what makes good theatre so good - and this is truly good theatre. This capacity is also what makes for a brilliant actor - and Max Mclean is clearly numbered among the best in this reviewer's opinion. 

In an interesting twist, the play opens with Screwtape addressing a graduation banquet for young demons who are graduating from the Tempters College. The original Screwtape Letters were written in 1941. However, the material adapted for this beginning was taken from "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", a 1962 essay Lewis wrote which was included in a collection of writings on theology, literature and ethics entitled "They Asked for a Paper". It is now routinely included in most editions of the Screwtape Letters.

After writing Screwtape Letters, Lewis vowed not to write another letter, even though the requests multiplied. He wrote of his experience of writing the letters, "the strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The world into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done. It would have smothered my readers if I had prolonged it."

Yet, some 20 years later, Lewis wrote the essay, "Screwtape Delivers a Toast" in response to a request from the Saturday Evening Post. Using the toast to begin this play was brilliant. It showed, from the beginning of this production, the creative genius of McLean and his colleague, Jeff Fiske. Together they adapted this book of letters for the Stage. The two work together in the "Fellowship for the Performing Arts". After seeing this play, I will follow their work very closely going forward.

Max told me in an earlier interview that a Theatre professor from Drew University once told him in a letter that he would "make a good Screwtape." He read Lewis' book when he was in his twenties and it had a profound effect on him. He wondered what the professor meant. Fortunately, it later led him to recast the book for the theatre. He was convinced that this CS Lewis masterpiece was "so brilliant and so consistent" in presenting a "morally inverted universe" that it had to performed onstage. 

Max was also convinced that the character Lewis created, Screwtape, was one of the great literary creations of the twentieth century. He knew that if they "could find this character theatrically it would be something wonderful." Well, after having experienced the Screwtape Letters on May 1, 2012 at the Wells Theatre in downtown Norfolk Virginia, I can say Max McLean has created that something wonderful. And, he offers it to all of us. I can also affirm that the Professor was correct about Max. The acting was so superb; I was truly in the presence of Screwtape.

The letters reveal the nature of all counterfeit "affection" as the relationship between student and teacher devolves into denigration, manipulation and abuse. The feigned affection of Screwtape is the cover for a relationship of use - with the ultimate aim of consuming Wormwood in its hungry malice. The selection of the few letters used in the play, out of over thirty in the book, shows that the writers understand the essence of CS Lewis.

The stark and foreboding set depicts the barrenness of hell with its backdrop of skulls and bones. The master/tempter Screwtape receives and sends his correspondence through the mediation of his assisting demon named Toadpipe - and through a unique communications device not unlike the drive through teller tube at a bank. Only this tube communicates through the layers of the lowerachy of the Kingdom below. The entire play takes place in Screwtape' barren office, decorated only by his sickening pride and self love.

Only Screwtape fully appears on that stage. Yes, he is assisted by a demon named Toadpipe who has no lines, only gyrations, grunts and gestures - a part well played by Tamala Bakkenson. However, the performance revolves around Screwtape. The characters of Wormwood, The Enemy (the true God), "Our Father Below" (the Evil One), Slobgob, The Patient (victim of Wormwood's failed temptations) and The Woman (with whom the patient falls in love) are made present through McLean's commanding presence.

Attending the Screwtape Letters should take its place alongside reading the original Lewis book - for anyone who seeks to live their life with meaning and purpose. This is a reverse morality play. Its message is delivered in a manner which elicited laughter from some in the audience. I did not laugh at all. It moved me to interior reflection - and appreciation for the gift of living faith.

The lessons revealed in the diabolical dialogue between the two demons - as they seek to devour and destroy - called to mind the clear promise of Jesus, "The thief comes to kill and destroy, I have come to bring Life and life in abundance" (John 10:10). 

The book peels back the layers of life, revealing the reality of the unseen or spiritual world. It exposes a morally upside down universe where the Evil One, the "Father Below",  and his minions, strategically seek out the fissures in our fractured freedom in order to lead us into the slavery of Hell. That Hell is separation from the God who is Love. It is aptly called in the book, the "kingdom of noise". It is devoid of all that is beautiful and good and true. That includes the wells of silence at which we learn the way of prayer.

The road to that separation is paved by our wrongful exercise of human freedom. We choose the way. The correspondence between these two demons exposes the meaning of the Moral life. Our choices not only change the world around us, they change us. We become what we choose. Because our capacity to choose the good has been fractured by sin, our choices have become a field of battle.

On that field, temptations raise their weapons against us, seeking out our most vulnerable areas. It is there where demons find their open door, piggybacking on our pride and self love in its myriad of disguises. They ride in to our lives on the back of our disordered appetites. It is there where lies lure us into the darkness where the "father below" works his evil and corrupting ways. 

The production received a well deserved and prolonged standing ovation at its conclusion. Afterward, Max McLean returned to the stage to answer questions from the members of the audience who desired to stay. He revealed another gift, his ability to teach the meaning of this play. Using the questions as a vehicle, like any good teacher, he spoke of his own experience in bringing the play from page to stage. He also explained the purpose CS Lewis had in living his life dedicated to writing such brilliant masterpieces of Christian apologetics.

After the production, patrons could pick up literature about the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, one of the projects Max is involved in. Its goal is to "produce theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience".  Having now seen this play I can say that they are succeeding. In so doing, they are keeping alive the work of greats like CS Lewis who understood the real mission of those who bear the name Christian.

We cannot build ghettos for ourselves where we hide from the world. Like the One whose name we bear, Jesus Christ, we are called to love the World - and to bring into its heart the message of the true humanism, Christianity.  One of the greatest vehicles for accomplishing this task is the Arts. Max McLean is a great artist, a great actor and a great gift.

The performance in Norfolk is co-sponsored by the Virginia Arts Festival. The play is making its way throughout various cities around the Nation. See it! I was delighted to read that an adaptation of Lewis' "The Great Divorce" is now being undertaken by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts. I will keep our global readers aware of its progress.  

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