In his first epistle—fifth chapter, eighth verse—the apostle Peter warns Christians to "be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about seeking whom he may devour." A funny little man with a pitchfork and bright red tights this is definitely not.
Adapted from C.S. Lewis's epistolary novel of the same name, The Screwtape Letters is a fictionalized, but biblically motivated, firsthand look at the inner workings of hell. As a spiritual and philosophical warning about the devil's trickery, Lewis's work is fascinating and instructive, giving causality and consequence to our daily travails. But as a piece of theater, the production unfortunately does not pass muster.
Screwtape (Max McLean) is the undersecretary of the Department of Temptation, an underworld bureaucratic office assigned to keep nonbelievers from knowing God at all, and believers from turning their decision of faith into any kind of lasting devotion, charity, or repentance. With the constant stenographical assistance of a buxom young demoness, Toadpipe (Jenny Savage), Screwtape fires missives to a flailing young apprentice, Wormwood, who must thwart the maturation of faith in an unnamed young Christian man.
Lewis—whose religious insights are far more cryptic in his famous, mythological Narnia series than they are here—was writing during the Second World War. But references to contemporary history do not keep his biblically sound insights about the devil's workings from being as cogent today as when they were written. As a Christian, I was struck by the time and care that Screwtape, this master tempter and a cog in the bureaucracy of hell, invests in the life of one man.
Screwtape encourages Wormwood to wreak havoc in various areas in the young Christian's life, including the continual and recurring arguments he has with his mother, in which both of them assume innocence and superiority; society's distorted female ideal, which can only lead to marital disappointment; anxieties about the future that keep him from enjoying the present; and, most insidiously, the claustrophobic pride that accompanies his identification as a believer in the first place. It seems that every good thing—filial affection, romantic love, the passage of time, and even the presence of faith itself—is in danger of being distorted and damaged, thereby clouding God's loving attempts to make us better people.
McLean's Screwtape is charismatic enough, which is a good thing, because the entire production consists of his talking directly to the audience. We simply watch his impassioned dictation for the better part of two hours. With only a handful of lines, Savage must resort to nonsensical and thematically disjointed dance numbers in between writing letters. The decision to keep her moving comes, no doubt, from the director's anxiety about how little there is to actually watch.
Better to have spent less money on the elaborately furnished set and put it toward hiring more actors, who could have pantomimed the spiritual warfare Screwtape so explicitly describes. We suspend our disbelief in order to see hell unfold before us, but we are not granted a view of ourselves, weakly cursing our circumstances, wondering at the meaning of it all—or of the angels whose intersession counteracts the likes of Wormwood, Screwtape, and the whole bunch.
Because the production is little more than a dramatized reading of Lewis's book, it can only succeed in preaching to the converted—audiences who will forgive its lack of theatricality because of its spiritual richness.