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‘Screwtape Letters’ provides devilishly good time

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Demons take center stage in the Pabst Theatre’s upcoming presentation of “The Screwtape Letters.” Photo courtesy of Gerry Goodstein.

Over the phone, Max McLean sounds like an experienced actor dedicated to his craft. He describes some of the roles he’s played since his acting career began in the 1970s. He mentions a performance of “Mark’s Gospel,” for which he won the 2009 Jeff Award for Solo Performance, the highest honor in the Chicago theater district. But there’s a mischievous quality to his voice when he describes his latest role, a cunning demon named Screwtape in the Pabst Theatre’s two-show run of “The Screwtape Letters” on Oct. 6.

“(It’s) a perfect example of typecasting. Beware of who you’re speaking with,” McLean said.

The play featuring the sinister character is a faithful theatrical adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ novel of the same title. Set in hell, the show follows the demon Screwtape as he plots to lure a human victim, known as the “patient,” into damnation.

“In ‘The Screwtape Letters,’ Lewis wrote one of the best examples of reverse psychology in all of literature,” McLean said. “He created this marvelously inverted universe where good is bad, up is down, God is called The Enemy, Satan is called Our Father Below, and he sustains it throughout without it breaking down. That’s very difficult to do.”

While McLean is an accomplished performer, he admits that he has never had a role as unique as Screwtape, whom he believes is one of the greatest literary characters of the 20th century.

“This is the most challenging role that I’ve ever done,” McLean said. “He’s like Iago (from “Othello”) on steroids. He’s really over-the-top evil but very likable and very persuasive.”

The play’s inception came from playwright Jeffrey Fiske. After seeing McLean in a one-man performance of the Book of Genesis, Fiske, then a Drew University professor, began considering McLean for another role.

“A couple weeks later, he sent me an email saying how much he appreciated the work and suggested that I would make a really good Screwtape,” McLean explained. “It was probably (because of) the quality of my voice. I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not.”

McLean, who was familiar with the book, was intrigued by the idea and began brainstorming with Fiske. The show is produced through the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, an arts ministry whose mission is to present theater that expresses the Christian faith in mainstream venues to diverse audiences.

“One of the challenges is that Christianity is often perceived as a political ideology that expresses itself in negative terms,” said McLean, who is also the president of the fellowship. “We think that by creating art and theater at the highest levels, the wonder of creation and redemption is conveyed beautifully and positively, and it gets a hearing that excites the imagination.”

After nearly 20 rough drafts and several development productions, the play finally took off. It sold out for ten weeks in Washington D.C., ran for six months in Chicago and played 309 shows over nine months in New York. Thanks to its immediate commercial success, “The Screwtape Letters” was able to begin a national tour that will continue through June 2013.

Since it is a limited engagement, fans of C.S. Lewis and “The Screwtape Letters” should not pass up the opportunity to see this critically acclaimed show. McLean believes there’s more to the play than just the schemes of his cynical character that all audiences, Christian or not, will appreciate. He said the show will “challenge audiences to evaluate their assumptions about truth and reality.”

“It will wake them up,” McLean said.

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