C.S. Lewis novel takes stage at Merriam Theater

Max McLean, star and co-creator of “The Screwtape Letters,” adapted the novel to a play, which will make its Philadelphia debut Oct. 19.

Max McLean said his adaption of “The Screwtape Letters,” a C.S. Lewis novel, began by checking his inbox.

“The project actually came to me while I was working on another show,” McLean said. “A Drew University professor attended the play and sent me an email telling me I’d make a good Screwtape and that’s what got this all started.”

McLean, teh star and co-creator of the adaption, had been familiar with C.S. Lewis’ novel prior to his work on the stage adaption.

“I read it in my 20s and it was the second or third Christian book I read after reading the New Testament.”

However, McLean originally hadn’t thought the book was something fitting for the stage.

“I hadn’t originally thought of it as stage literature,” McLean said. “[Lewis’] writing style is dense language for the stage—it needed to be thinned out. If you listen to Lewis’ book on tape, it’s over six hours long, in contrast to our stage adaptation that’s 90 minutes long.”

Besides condensing the novel, McLean also put heavy importance on the way he portrayed the lead character, Screwtape, particularly with his voice.

“I imagined Screwtape’s voice as queer — it’s both soothing and annoying at the same time,” McLean said. “It’s soothing in the fact that it tells you what you want to hear and it’s annoying because at the same time, you know that he’s trying to doom you. He effectively gets in your head.”

From the beginning of the process of adapting the novel for the stage, McLean said he kept himself in mind for the role of Screwtape. Knowing his impending role didn’t alter the accuracy of the stage adaption, however.

“Ninety-eight to 99 percent of the words are taken directly from the book,” McLean said.

Although “The Screwtape Letters” was written in 1942, McLean believes that it is still relevant to people in today’s culture and society.

“Human nature hasn’t changed,” McLean said. “It’s still the same as it was in 1942. We still have the propensity for greed, selfishness, ego, pride, arrogance, the ‘What’s in it for me?’ question. We label someone as a jerk if they do something bad to us, but if we do something bad to someone, we make up excuses for our behavior. In my opinion, the book is the best example of reverse psychology in all of literature and one of the great literary creations of the 20th century. Lewis keeps the morally-inverted world of Screwtape consistent throughout.”

“The Screwtape Letters” has been a successful production thus far, but McLean said he had his doubts in the beginning.

“Theater is a crapshoot, we don’t know how audiences will respond to the piece,” McLean said. “However, saying that, I also knew that Lewis was a popular author and that the public knew his writing fairly well. I felt that if it was presented as a faithful adaptation, it would have a chance at being successful, but there are never any guarantees in theater, it’s a risky business. It took a while to get traction, but it found its audience.”

While some actors may believe in the ability to lose themselves in a role, McLean is not one of them.

“The idea of becoming your character too much that you forget yourself is completely mythological,” McLean said. “I always know what I’m doing when I’m acting as Screwtape, I know who I am and I know the character that I need to portray. My objective each night is to play the character while keeping in mind what the character wants, how I should use my body, voice and mind to make choices that best convey the character.”

The role has, however, given McLean insight into some aspects of himself.

“It’s made me much more aware of my own selfishness, my own pride and my own laziness, the things that Screwtape uses to destroy and make healthy souls malignant,” McLean said. “It’s a good thing to become self-aware.”

Playing Screwtape is both a mentally and physically challenging experience, McLean said.

“Screwtape is much smarter than me and he uses language much better,” McLean said. “He’s really good at his job and the challenge of the role makes it fun. Screwtape is like Shakespeare’s Iago in ‘Othello’ on steroids with a bit of Hannibal Lecter.”

“The Screwtape Letters” will be at the Merriam Theater Oct. 19 to 20.

Mary Kate Allison can be reached at mary.kathleen.allison@temple.edu.

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