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Interview: 'Screwtape Letters' star Max McLean 

click to enlarge Screwtape (Max McLean) urges on his minion, Toadpipe.
  • Screwtape (Max McLean) urges on his minion, Toadpipe.

When C.S. Lewis's epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters first made its way to the stage in 1961, the playwright, John Forsyth, expanded on the source text by actually staging the action rendered only as exposition in the novel's series of letters from Screwtape to a younger, lesser experienced demon. Forsyth's play - first named Dear Wormwood, now Screwtape - is still occasionally performed, as is a song-and-dance-laden version that dates from this century.

By contrast, the adaption headed to Clowes Saturday takes things back to the basics; it's essentially a one-man show featuring the voluble Screwtape, along with his servant, Toadpipe, in a very physical, non-speaking role. First staged off-off-Broadway in 2006, the production is several years into a run of national tours presented by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, a non-profit organization whose mission is "to produce theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience." Max McLean, who stars as Screwtape and co-adapted the play with Jeffrey Fiske (and also serves as president and artistic director of the Fellowship of the Performing Arts), talked with us about the history and demands of the project.

NUVO: What was your impetus to start this project?

McLean: It actually came to me. Somebody saw me do another show and said, "I think you'd make a really good Screwtape." I didn't know if it was a compliment or not, but I was intrigued. I read the book and loved it, but I never saw it as theatrical literature. This fellow [Fiske] is a theater professor at Drew University in New Jersey. He had an idea how to do it. I said if we can get the rights from C.S. Lewis's estate we'll give it a go. And that's how it began.

NUVO: What changes were made to dramatize Lewis's manuscript?

McLean: First of all, we had to find the story arc for the play in the book. That's not obvious when reading it. But it's there. It is essentially a "hunt" story, a predator-prey story. Screwtape is the predator. The patient, a kind of everyman, is the prey. So we looked at those two arcs. The patient goes from very indifferent to spiritual credence to becoming quite devout, despite all of the Screwtape's efforts. And then the more theatrical journey is what happens to Screwtape, who begins the show as this master of the universe character. He loves ruining people's lives, and he is really good at it. Audiences love him because of that. He goes from the master of the universe character to someone that really has to roll up his sleeves and work incredibly hard.

NUVO: C.S. Lewis said that it was difficult to write this piece, unenjoyable even. How is it for you to play it night after night?

McLean: I love playing Screwtape, I'm ashamed to say. He's really one of the great literary creations of the 20th century. One thing you need in theater is a compelling larger-than-life central character. And boy, Lewis wrote a good one. The book and the play are probably one of the best examples of reverse psychology in literature.

NUVO: Where do you find the stamina?

McLean: That's certainly a legitimate question, in most roles. Once you see it, and understand the depth of it, the constellation of ideas that Lewis created, you just don't get to the bottom of it. That's what's so amazing. So many plays after two or three weeks, you've logged the depths of it. There's nothing else left. In this play, I find that it continues to challenge me. So I still get tremendous joy.

NUVO: What do you hope that audiences will take away from the production as a whole? What's the message?

McLean: There's a lot of messages. Lewis loved to do two things: to tell stories and to teach Christian theology. One of his central messages is that the quality of our lives is the result of the sum total of choices that we make. That's nothing new. However, the thing that Lewis would add to that is that those choices are influenced. You're not on your own. You are being influenced to the good or to the evil. Or as St. Paul says,"Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against these powers and principalities." What The Screwtape Letters does is to draw the material curtain so that we can see the supernatural world.

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