Conversations with the devil are nothing new to literature or drama. Countless books, plays and films have been inspired by the idea. Sympathy for the Devil, The Devil’s Advocate and even Damn Yankees have all portrayed interaction with the title character in different ways. Another adaptation is currently in performances at the Westside Theater and it is one hell of a lesson.
C.S. Lewis, one of the most well-known authors of Christian literature, also approached this idea, composing a series of letters from one of the devil’s chief underlings, His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, who is advising his nephew Wormwood, a devil in training.
Starring Max McLean as Screwtape and Karen Eleanor Wright as Toadpipe, his secretary, the stage adaptation of Lewis’ 1942 novel is set in Screwtape’s library where he dictates his letters. Offering instructions and advice on how to urge people to stray from a Christian life, his dictations include a great deal of commentary on the Christian church and its flaws, which are obviously ironic and serve as a reverse lesson on Christianity by Lewis. God is called the “Enemy” and the devil is referred to as “Our Father below.”
As Screwtape, McLean delivers a commanding and entertaining performance. A solid stage presence, he possesses a commanding voice and intimidating presence and it’s easy to see why Screwtape holds a position of power in the devil’s office. As he grows increasingly frustrated with Wormwood, his anger becomes palpable and even frightening. As Toadpipe, Wright has little to do except grunt and squeal as she runs around the stage, but she inhabits the character as fully as she can, and her costume is quite impressive as well.
The show is paced well but a bit static and talk-heavy, which, despite McLean’s impressive performance, is a detriment. It feels a bit like a college lecture rather than a theatrical performance, but the excellent set, lighting and music all help to ease that feeling as well as the timeless themes of Screwtape’s discussions. As he counsels Wormwood on how to exploit the weakness of Christianity, he mentions the evils of war, the influence of friends and the ideas of feminine beauty, scorning the idea that women must look emanciated, like young boys, to be considered attractive. The book was written in 1942, but the comments are undoubtedly relevant in 2010.
During the Middle Ages, people feared sin and temptation. Nowadays, it’s disbelief that people see as a threat to their religion. In a world where many feel apathetic towards religion and could sum up their feelings by saying, “I’m like ‘Eh’” The Screwtape Letters remains a relevant and thought-provoking piece of literature and theater.
The Screwtape Letters will play at the WestSide Theater through September.