- Adapted by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean from a novel by C.S. Lewis
- Directed by Jeffrey Fiske
- Produced by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts at the Lansburgh Theatre
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
I respectfully recommend that you commit to memory the name of Karen Eleanor Wight. There will be a day, I predict, when every member of the theater-going public will know it, and on that day will use it as a reason to shell out a hundred bucks to see a show. It will be good for you to get in on the ground floor, and to see her before prices get astronomical. I mean no disrespect to the estimable writing team of McLean and Fiske – who are Screwtape and Director, respectively – or to their superb technical staff, but the best reason to see this production is Wight.
Let me step back. The devil – a shadowy figure in scripture, but prime in the human imagination since the dawn of recorded history – is much in evidence in Washington these days, between this show and Forum’s wonderful The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. It’s nice to see him in the flesh, so to speak, since we are ordinarily only able to view him through his accomplishments here. Lewis imagines his devil, Screwtape, as part of a sort of Senior Executive Service of Hell. He has a swell office, with a secretary (Wight) and an overstuffed chair. Among his many responsibilities, he mentors his nephew, Wormwood, a novice devil whose sole responsibility is to draw a human man (who Screwtape calls “the patient”) over to the dark side. Suffice it to say that despite his best efforts, Wormwood (who does not appear on stage) is unsuccessful, and the patient persists in being a good man to his final day.
Screwtape extols vice and rants against virtue, in order to further Lewis’ objective of extolling virtue at the expense of vice. McLean has a mellifluous voice and excellent stage presence, but it does not hide the fact that The Screwtape Letters is a series of letters about virtue and vice, dictated by a middle-aged man. Lewis, a middle-aged man when he wrote it, had an interesting take about vice: to him, all vice seemed to be a byproduct of overweening pride. Thus, the woman with a palate so discerning that no one’s food is adequate is a “glutton for delicacy”; the man who shops for a Church that its “right for him” is, worse than a glutton, a critic; the woman who starves herself in order to be attractive to men commits a sexual sin, as does the man who responds to her; the man who reads a book not for the pleasure of it but to have witty things to say to his friends is unnatural. It is a subtle point, one which a reader, alone with his book and a glass of port on a Friday evening, can ponder to his heart’s content. The stage, however, is a more problematic venue to consider Lewis’ argument.
Nonetheless, The Screwtape Letters is considerably more than a lecture by a man with an excellent voice. Wight is the primary reason for this. Screwtape, who is a pompous windbag of a variety well known to us, cannot give us a true picture of Hell, but Wight (whose name, Toadpipe, is never pronounced in the production) can. She is a human who has been turned into an animal who will go deeper into her animal nature, we immediately understand, with the passage of time. Standing two-legged to do Screwtape’s bidding, she moves ponderously, almost as though she had been hobbled, but she is otherwise as fluid as mercury. She cackles; she mewls like a kitten and barks like a dog; she becomes so goatish that she seems a sure bet to gnaw on the paper she uses to take Screwtape’s dictation. She leaps to a table and squats there like some predatory gargoyle. When Screwtape describes life on earth, she plays all the roles, and becomes human again. There is a touch of wistfulness in Wight’s face when she does this, as though Toadpipe is remembering what it was to be a person, with all of its grace and pain. Screwtape, and Lewis, talk about Hell but she personifies it in a performance so creative that, though she says no words, one wonders if she deserves a writing credit.
To Fiske’s credit, he does not permit the play to become over-reliant on Wight. When she performs she lights up the stage but when it is Screwtape’s turn, she instantly becomes part of the background.
A word about that background: it is fabulous. Cameron Anderson has created an office perfect for Hell, with human skulls lining the walls like sculpture in a senior bureaucrat’s office. Burt Fasbinder’s sound will make your skin crawl. I have seldom heard sound so perfectly fitted to a theatrical environment. Michael Bevins has designed a brilliant costume for Toadpipe, and, for Screwtape, a smoking jacket perfect for Hell. Finally, Tyler Micoleau’s lighting design is superb. The background shifts from red to green to cold grey, but it does it so subtly that you won’t notice until it’s too late – much in the same way that virtue shifts to vice.
- Running Time: 1:30, no intermission.
- When: Thursdays through Sundays until May 18. Sundays are at 3 p.m.; all other shows are at 8, and there are Saturday matinees at 4.
- Where: Lansburgh Theatre (one of Shakespeare Theatre’s two venues) at 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC
- Tickets: $29-$49. Call 202.547.1122 or 877.487.8849, or go to http://www.screwtapeonstage.com/.