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'Screwtape Letters' stage production still going strong, returns to Salt Lake City on Saturday

Published: Thursday, March 21 2013 3:10 p.m. MDT

Max McLean (standing) stars as “Screwtape” and Beckley Andrews stars as “Toadpipe” in the stage adaptation of "The Screwtape Letters."

Gerry Goodstein

SALT LAKE CITY — Max McLean knows from personal experience that acting like a conniving devil for five years is no easy slog.

McLean wrote, directed and acted the lead role in “The Screwtape Letters” stage adaptation that debuted off-Broadway on Oct. 18, 2007. Although two other actors had intermittently inhabited the skin of scheming Screwtape, it was McLean who usually acted the title role as the play toured the country and enjoyed extended runs in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

But at the dawn of 2013, McLean’s time playing Screwtape unofficially ended when he chose to hand off the reins to actor Brent Harris.

“We are working on multiple other pieces, and I needed the time to develop those pieces,” McLean told the Deseret News. “We also wanted to have several actors play Screwtape.”

Despite the proverbial passing of the torch, though, the show must go on. Based on the classic C.S. Lewis novel of the same name, the “Screwtape Letters” stage production continues touring the country. More than 300,000 people have seen the play in more than 50 cities across the U.S., and it returns to Salt Lake City on Saturday for 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. performances at Kingsbury Hall.

With 2013 marking the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death, it’s appropriate that the stage version of “Screwtape Letters” is the most visible vestige of the famed Christian author’s legacy — because, after all, it’s the story of Screwtape and his devilish friends that first cast Lewis as an international sensation.

Adapting a classic

When Lewis published “Screwtape Letters” in 1942, he was a 43-year-old professor of English literature at the University of Oxford. England was in the throes of World War II, and eight more years would pass before Lewis released the first volume of his “Chronicles of Narnia” series.

As a book, “Screwtape Letters” consists of a series of written correspondence from a senior devil, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood regarding the latter’s attempts to wrangle the soul of a British man referred to as “the Patient.” Screwtape’s counsel frequently centers on methods for subtly steering human souls away from true Christian conversion.

“‘Screwtape’ was the book that really kicked (Lewis’) career into overdrive,” said S. Michael Wilcox, the best-selling Deseret Book author who wrote his doctoral dissertation about Lewis. “I think it won people’s admiration because of the sheer uniqueness of its creativity — these letters from hell — and its deep insight into human behavior that Lewis was so good at. And the characterization of Screwtape is (noteworthy) because in a sense you begrudgingly begin to like him — he’s so devious, just so clever.”

The unique composition of “Screwtape Letters,” however, posed an inherent challenge for McLean in penning his stage adaptation.

“The book is very dense and was meant to be thought through,” he said. “You would have time to read it — if you didn’t quite get it, you could go back and read it again.

“But in theater, it has to be alive right at that moment, engaged right at that moment, so the action and the language had to support the theatricality that was necessary to keep the audience’s attention and to keep the story moving forward.”

Ultimately, McLean harvested from Lewis’ book two narrative arcs for the stage version: the spiritual progression of the Patient, and “what happens to Screwtape, who begins the play as this larger-than-life, master-of-the-universe character who loves the way he looks, loves the way he talks, loves the way he dresses, smartest guy in the room — and (becomes) a defeated demon.”

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