Max McLean stars at "Screwtape" in The Screwtape Letters. Photo: Gerry Goodstein
If you’re familiar with the work of C.S. Lewis, then you’ve heard of The Screwtape Letters. It’s a classic tome based on a figurative book written by two demons.
The book was recently adapted for the stage and the touring show from a successful run in New York. It’s now on tour throughout all the places in America where this sort of stuff flies well––like Salt Lake City. The Christian contingent was out in full force the day and night of the one-day only matinee and evening performances. You might be wondering why a devout atheist would venture into such a crowd and subject matter ... I did it for the play. Subject matter aside, the use of the work’s source material was executed well. The addition of a demon sidekick, Toadpipe, for the main character Screwtape to play off of was also cleverly written. It helped answer the question I had of how a book based on letters between two demons could transform into a play. Making it a one-act was also a good idea, and the long, single-speaker monologue was thoroughly entertaining as only monologues can be.
The character of Screwtape (Max McLean) is never joined by the nephew he writes to, Wormwood. Instead, the spoken word of the performance is presented entirely by McLean in didactic tone as his character resides in Hell. Scenes are separated by lighting changes and the whole set consists of a backdrop of bones, a raised study floor and a chair. There is the artifice of a ladder to reach the world above and a mailbox for correspondence hangs just above. The sidekick Toadpipe never speaks, but dictatates Screwtape’s letters and occasionally transforms into “human” form to act out the worst or best of human subjects Screwtape lectures about for his nephew’s edification. The subject matter of these diatribes inspired by Wormwood’s letters vary from how demons should imbue their human wards with human (evil) vices, to how good human souls taste. There is a lot of talk of how delicious souls are. The audience laughed and grinned, but I found myself smirking at the wrong bits.
The Q&A with McLean afterwards seemed to be some sort of Christian fellowshipping event. Turns out McLean is a Christian and has been training more minion actors to play Screwtape and infiltrate increasingly non-believing suburban zoos with more productions of this adaptation. McLean’s production was on his way to Phoenix, so the chat ran about 15 minutes, then it was onward for the bones backdrop and the best man I’ve seen to embody a demon in quite some time. There are only two engagements each day in most cities, then the show rolls on. Regardless of criticism of the content of the Q&A, the actor behind the words seemed human and real, entirely unlike the demon he embodies. For more information on the play go to screwtapeonstage.com.