Play based on C.S. Lewis' 'Screwtape Letters' brings 'wickedly funny' show to Gallo CenterMax McLean believes "The Screwtape Letters" will appeal to a wide audience, and a review of the play agrees: "(It) is nearly as incisive and funny as it is on the page, and one that should appeal to the aesthetically-discerning atheist as well as to a wide swath of religious folks."
The New York Times said, "The devil has rarely been given his due more perceptively and eruditely." The Wall Street Journal called it "wickedly witty" and Christianity Today said it was "devilishly good!"
The two-person play is set in hell and is based on the book of the same name by C.S. Lewis, the Oxford and Cambridge professor who also wrote the best-selling "Chronicles of Narnia." About 97 percent of the dialogue in the play can be found in the book, said McLean (pronounced Mac-Lane) in a phone interview Wednesday.
"I read the book in my 20s and was really taken by it," he said. "I could hear Screwtape's voice. It is so insidious."
Lewis' "Screwtape Letters" is a series of missives from one of Satan's top aides, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, instructing the novice demon on how to best lead astray a new Christian and divert him to following "our lord below." Using humor, sly wit and cultural jabs, Screwtape exhorts, pleads, encourages and scolds his underling, sometimes telling him to keep his subject too busy to attend to God and at other times encouraging Wormwood to remind the earthling to stick to the "parrot" prayers of his childhood so he doesn't grasp the concept of pouring out his heart to God.
And it's best if humans don't believe in Satan, Screwtape says, or at most visualizes him as a cartoonlike character with horns and a pitchfork.
One line from "Screwtape" reads, "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."
In the play, Screwtape dictates his advice to his assistant, Toadpipe, who is a minor character in the book.
"The material is so challenging," McLean said. "It's so beautifully, powerfully written. It engages my imagination about the reality of the spiritual world. It takes a genius like Lewis to help us see it."
Lewis was an atheist who became a deist and finally a Christian, as told in his book, "Surprised by Joy." He dedicated his "Screwtape" book to his fellow writer and friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of "Lord of the Rings."
McLean said people don't need to be familiar with the book to enjoy the play.
"A lot of people come and say, 'I don't know what it's about,' " McLean said. "It's entertaining. It's literary, not slapstick, but there are a lot of laughs in it. It respects people's intelligence. The book is probably one of the best examples of reverse psychology in literature. It takes the audience about three seconds to tune into this world."
McLean wrote the play with a theater professor, Jeff Fiske, in 2005 and first performed it the following year. Since then, he said, they've written about15 revisions, making it "clearer, shorter, more precise."
He said "Screwtape" should make audiences think about whether the supernatural world really exists. They should also come away from it understanding that "the choices we make, the little ones, really matter. The quality of your life and your relationships will largely be determined by the choices you make. Those choices are influenced by who you listen to" in this case, Screwtape.
McLean, who was born in Panama City and came to the United States when he was 4 years old, has performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Stratford Festival Theater and other venues across the United States. His favorite roles include Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Peachum in "The Threepenny Opera" and Snoopy in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."
He has recorded the Bible in the NIV, ESV and King James translations and received an award in 2009 for his solo performance in "Mark's Gospel."
Married for more than 30 years to his wife, Sharon, McLean lives near New York and has two adult daughters. He is the founder and artistic director of Fellowship for the Performing Arts, which exists "to produce theater from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2012.
WHAT: "The Screwtape Letters"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: Gallo Center for the Performing Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto
TICKETS: $39 to $69
CALL: (209) 338-2100