A devil of a good time

Director Max McLean brings C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” to life, and examines the Christian way.

Photo by Lancia E. Smith

It was back in 1992 that Max McLean founded the Fellowship for Performing Arts in New York City, with the hope that he could present a Christian worldview through theater. Here it is 24 years later, and the theater continues to be jam-packed.

“In New York, we’re the only game in town,” McLean says. “People want to talk about this stuff but there are no venues to talk about it. We have the market cornered on religious subjects. It’s astonishing to me that these subjects aren’t discussed more often and the fact that we get audiences tells me there’s a hunger for it.”

Currently, FPA is staging C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” a savvy, provocative and wickedly funny theatrical adaptation of the infamous C.S. Lewis novel about spiritual warfare from a demon’s point of view.

“When I first read this in my twenties, it made a huge impact on me, although I never saw it as theatrical literature,” says McLean, who is directing the play. “When someone approached me many years later with the idea of doing it as a play, I was immediately intrigued because of the initial impact it made on me.”

Brent Harris in The Screwtape Letters

Photo by Joan Marcus

The action of the story takes place in an eerily stylish office in Hell, and follows the clever scheming of one of Satan’s senior tempters, Screwtape, played by Brent Harris, who is tasked with training his nephew how best to corrupt humans. Screwtape communicates through letters, dictating the ominous advice to his assistant, Toadpipe, a reptilian demon creature who has a unique way of doing her job.

McLean proves that the stakes are high for all involved, as human souls are Hell’s primary source of food, and mistakes are not looked at fondly.

“If there’s one message I hope audiences walk away with, it’s that the supernatural world is the real word. This world is a temporary world, a shadowy world, but that’s the real world,” McLean says. “Our immediate decision making in this world determines where our destiny lies. Screwtape is all about influencing our decisions. Lewis is really big on that.”

As with all of FPA’s productions, McLean feels it’s important to combine his beliefs with the art presented on stage.

“To be a Christian, you are committed to the notion that the world is not the way it ought to be and you are also committed to the notion that I am part of the problem,” he says. “When you think of those two things and combine it with theater, which is meant to jar people and wake them up—whether it’s a fun evening with lots of spectacle or a big drama—I think integrating your faith in your work is what a Christian ought to be thinking about. And also thinking of it in terms of renewal, in terms of reconciliation, plus peace and prosperity of the larger community. These are what our faith in our work ought to be doing.”

The Screwtape Letters Brent Harris

Photo by Joan Marcus

One of McLeans’s favorite things is to hold feedback sessions with the audience after the final curtain closes.

“You have to be real careful because you don’t want it to be a proselytizing event because that shuts people down,” McLean says. “I want it to be a time for assumption and imagination to be engaged, and they want to know more. What does that metaphor mean? That sparks a real good opportunity to take the conversation one or two steps further.”

McLean understands that all major religions speak about personal responsibility and talk about a certain sense of delaying gratification and working for the good of others, but that the distinction with Christianity is, “we’re guilty if we don’t do it and that we have help available to us if we’re willing to take it.”

That’s another message he hopes people walk away from the show thinking about—one he thought a lot about when adapting the book. He admits the material was a bit challenging—with lots of ideas and lots of words—but that the play has made people think and question.

“The fact I was able to take it from the page to stage and have such a huge resonance with our audience is so gratifying,” he says. “It’s what I always intended it to be.”

In its seven-year history—including a successful off-Broadway run and four years on national tour—“The Screwtape Letters” has been seen by more than 400,000 people. It’s playing for a limited run in New York, through January 24, and then heads on tour with stops in Portland, Oregon; Redding, California; San Diego, California; and Mesa, Arizona.

Next up for FPA is “Martin Luther on Trial,” a fictional account of what a trial for the protestant reformer or revolter (depending on your point of view) would look like complete with Saint Peter as judge.

“What we wanted to do was take a look at the legacy of this Shakespearean-sized personality that made such an impact on Western civilization,” McLean says. “Next year marks the 500th anniversary since he ignited a revolt against Rome, and this fantasy finally unleashes his religious and political controversies.”

That play runs in NYC February 4 to 14.

Keith Loria
Keith Loria
Keith Loria is a theater and entertainment writer whose most notable interviews include legendary actor Ben Vereen, Broadway make-up artist Angelina Avallone and the extraordinary Idina Menzel. When not writing, Keith can be found playing with his daughters, Jordan and Cassidy.