Last year’s Screwtape Letters (reviewed here ) was a metaphysical feast of hard moral and intellectual challenges served up by Screwtape (Max McLean), C. S. Lewis’ favorite demonic bureaucrat, and made luminous by Screwtape’s toady Toadpipe (the astonishing Karen Eleanor Wight). Having played in Chicago and New York for twenty months since then, it is now fiercer, more focused, and more visceral – a full-force dance with the devil in which there are no prisoners and no safety.
Make no mistake: The Screwtape Letters, adapted by McLean and director Jeff Fiske from the great Lewis novel of the same name, is a series of letters. They are dictated by Screwtape – essentially a product of Satan’s Senior Executive Service – to his novice nephew and protégé, Wormwood. The latter, who does not appear on stage, has as his mission the seduction of a human subject (Screwtape calls him “the patient”) into the service of “our Father Below.” It is a subtle task, and difficult: the patient is a conventional young man, who has just recently joined a church, and “the Enemy” (aka God) has some formidable resources. But Screwtape is encouraging. It is not necessary to transform the patient into a Hitler or a serial killer; it is sufficient that he become vain about his virtues, or that he speaks one way to his cynical friends on Saturday night and another way to his fellow parishioners on Sunday morning. “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one,” he advises Wormwood. “The gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
This is provocative stuff, but is it drama? Twenty months ago, McLean and Fiske punctuated the production with the antics of Wight as Toadpipe, a gnawing, chittering, demonic creature who both aided Screwtape and illustrated his text. This was sufficient to turn Screwtape Letters into theater, and her work in this role earned Wight a DC Theatre Scene Audience Choice Award as favorite actress in a play. She is back in this production in an expanded capacity, a broader range of her prodigious capability on display.
But what has boosted the theatrical firepower of this production is that McLean, and the revised text, have given Screwtape’s quest an incendiary edge of desperation. Twenty months ago Screwtape was pedagogical, and avuncular. This Screwtape isn’t avuncular. He’s hungry.
Hunger rules in Hell. “We want to make men cattle, so they can become food,” Screwtape, aflame with lust, explains to Wormwood. “The Enemy wants to make them servants, so they can become sons.”
This singular insight animates the whole story, and as Wormwood’s failures drive Screwtape further into fear and hunger, his polished veneer (“I’m a man of wealth and taste,” Mick Jagger sings in the walk-on music) tarnishes before our eyes, and we see the dramatic arc of the story fulfilled.
In an interview, McLean explained that Screwtape harbors no love for his nephew, except as a facilitator for his lust to munch on human souls. “The affection in the ‘Your Affectionate Uncle’ benediction is purely utilitarian,” McLean said. “It can and does turn against Wormwood when it becomes clear that he can not deliver. He is gone – eaten. There is no altruism.” This production makes this self-serving perspective clear in ways that the earlier version did not.
Screwtape’s technical side has persistently been first-rate, but Bart Fasbender’s sound has been amped up in this production to a level which transcends technical excellence and becomes art. Indeed, McLean and Fiske wisely incorporate Lewis’ comments on the afterlife’s tonalities: in Heaven there is music and silence but in Hell there is only noise. The cacophony Fasbender has concocted to illustrate Lewis’ point recalls the inside of a prison.
Wisdom now married to drama, and thus The Screwtape Letters has earned a designation as a DC Theatre Scene Top Pick. In Frank Crane’s 1919 “Actor’s Prayer” he observes “Thou hast washed my heart clean as the priest’s.” By making themselves fully available to Lewis’ words, Fiske, McLean, Wight and company have come to us with hearts immaculate.
The Screwtape Letters – TOP PICK!
Adapted by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean from C.S. Lewis’ novel
Directed by Jeffrey Fiske
Produced by Fellowship for the Performing Arts at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The Screwtape Letters continues at the Lansburgh Theatre thru Jan 17, 2010.
Click here for Details, Directions and tickets.
The Screwtape Questions – interviews with Max McLean and Karen Eleanor Wight