You might have seen The Screwtape Letters when it passed through Houston on its last tour, but actor/co-director Max McLean says his character, His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, is even more insidious and treacherous this time around. Based on the C.S. Lewis novel of the same name, The Screwtape Letters is centered on Screwtape, Satan's head psychiatrist, who's tasked with winning souls over to the dark side. He's also in charge of training an apprentice demon, Wormwood.
"He's markedly more confident," McLean tells Art Attack. "And that makes him a little more formidable as an adversary. Actually, it also makes him even more likable. He's always been really good at his job and that's showing more and more. He's the smartest guy in the room. He loves the way he looks, loves the way he talks, loves the way he dresses. His pride, his cynicism and skepticism about human nature really comes through. And, of course, that's what Lewis wanted so that we can see what we're up against."
McLean, who along with Jeff Fiske adapted and directed the production, credits the show's success with Lewis's strength as a writer. "I think The Screwtape Letters is the best example of reverse psychology in all of literature. And the character Screwtape is one of the great literary creations of the 20th century," he says. "To have the privilege of dissecting [The Screwtape Letters] and interpreting it for an audience in a live theater is one of the most gratifying things an actor could imagine."
Adapting the novel to the stage was relatively straightforward for McLean and Fiske. Rather than relying on theatrical contrivances, they looked to Lewis's words for answers about what to put onstage. "First and foremost, we were committed to Lewis. We knew we couldn't outsmart him, so we said, 'Let's just try to capture the essence of the work.' The audience is going to be asking who, what, when, why questions throughout the piece. Our job is to answer those questions and to do it in such a way that keeps them saying, 'Tell me more. What's next?'"
For most audience members, The Screwtape Letters is just an entertaining and provocative night of theater. But, according to McLean, for some it's much, much more. "That's the bottom line for us, that the audience have a great time, that they have really been engaged. But for a small percentage of the audience, the show holds up a mirror that's kind of convicting. They say, 'Wow, I'm like that.' And that can be a real challenge to the audience.
"For an even smaller percentage of the audience, this is a life-changing event. They come away from the show saying, 'Wow, I really get that there's a spiritual world. I really get that behind the curtain, there are powers and things that are really attempting to manipulate my life and that I have to guard against.' And that was Lewis's intent."
Karen Eleanor Wight, Beckley Andrews and Tamala Bakkensen share the role of Toadpipe, Screwtape's creature assistant. (Wormwood is talked about, but never seen onstage.)
See The Screwtape Letters at 8 p.m. on Friday and 4 and 8 p.m on Saturday at the Wortham Center, 501 Texas. Actor/co-director Max McLean leads a post-show discussion after each performance. For information, visit the show's website. $39 to $89.