Stage Review: Devil in the details for 'Screwtape' actor
By Christopher Blank
Max McLean laughs diabolically when a reporter tells him of a recent quest to find a copy of C.S. Lewis' popular novel "The Screwtape Letters" in Memphis. Every copy had been checked out at every library branch. At the bookstore, the clerk shook her head: "Oh, I'm sorry, but we've had kids buying up all the books. Must be for some class."
"That is really interesting!" McLean says. "I recently spoke to a publisher with Harper Collins and I was told that for the first time in years, 'Screwtape' is outselling Lewis' second best-selling book, 'Mere Christianity' (after 'The Chronicles of Narnia'). I'd like to think we have something to do with that."
The "we" in that sentence includes director and co-writer Jeffrey Fiske, whose recent stage adaptation of "The Screwtape Letters" -- in which McLean stars -- found favorable audiences in New York, Chicago and Washington and is now touring the country. Two performances are scheduled at the Orpheum theater on Saturday.
In "The Screwtape Letters," a devil in the lower reaches of hell counsels his nephew, Wormwood, on ways to tempt a human soul. "The safest path to hell is a gradual one," counsels Screwtape on the slow-and-steady method of spiritual warfare. I spoke with McLean about bringing Lewis' novel to the stage.
Q: What was the impetus for adapting "The Screwtape Letters"?
A: Jeff saw me in a play and said, "I think you'd make a really good Screwtape." I wasn't sure if that was a compliment. I had read the book in my 20s, and was really challenged by it. What I took away from it was the banality of evil, how it numbs you and flattens you out so that you never become the person you once wished you could be.
Q: Lewis got the idea for "The Screwtape Letters" shortly after hearing Adolph Hitler deliver a fiery speech on the radio. Where did you get your inspiration for playing a devil?
A: I had a memory of playing "honest" Iago (the villain from "Othello") in drama school. His appeal is to draw you into his confidence and then ruin you. The Bible speaks of Satan as someone who masquerades as the Master of Light. I also thought about Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. As far as the smoothness of the language, I thought of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. More recently, I really started watching (the comedian) Lewis Black and I really like his complete vocal commitment on the verge of madness.
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Performances for "The Screwtape Letters"are at 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, November 5th.