The Screwtape Letters (The Paramount Theatre)

Posted on March 14, 2012


Award winning actor, Max McLean, is brilliant in his role as Senior Tempter, Uncle Screwtape in "The Screwtape Letters".

When the word reached me that Max McLean would be in town for one day, doing two performances of “The Screwtape Letters” at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Seattle, I knew that I had to be in attendance. “The Screwtape Letters” was adapted by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean from the book of the same name written by C.S. Lewis. It stars Max McLean, who also co-directs with Fisk. McLean has been performing the play since the opening run in New York, Chicago and D.C.; having successfully completed well over 700 performances of TSL.

As a longtime admirer of C.S. Lewis and his writings, I was skeptical that one could effectively convey the nuances of the book on stage, as it’s not your typical fare. It was hard enough for some to read the relatively short book completely through. The book records the mail correspondence between Screwtape, a demon of the highest order, and his fledgling tempter nephew, Wormwood. In their exchanges, Wormwood, a recent graduate of the “Tempters’ Training College” describes his first assignment with a human affectionately referred to as the “Patient”. It is Wormwood’s mission to ensure that the Patient is tempted off of the narrow path. In return, good ol’ Uncle Screwtape, reminiscent of an unholy ‘Dear Abby’ or ‘Dr. Phil’ manner, dispenses his malevolent wisdom and insights concerning Christianity, faith and the human condition, in hopes of guiding Wormwood into nefarious maturity and bringing about the eternal damnation of the Patient.

My momentary uneasiness was allayed by the choice of music played while waiting for the curtains to open. My attention was initially seized by Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and I am delighted to say that the performance to follow was wickedly riveting, entertaining and thought-provoking. Max McLean, dressed up like Alistair Cooke’s evil cousin doing a Masterpiece Theatre vignette, held me spellbound throughout. The show, unlike Wormwood, does not disappoint in the end.

Max McLean starring in "The Screwtape Letters".

The set was minimalistic but effective, especially with the adept use of lighting, in representing Screwtape’s office located somewhere within the depths of hell and that is where the entire production takes place. An office complete with a leather office chair, some tables, a twisting ladder reaching skyward and Screwtape’s mailbox hanging from the rafters. There is little onstage to distract the audience from the performance of the actors. I say actors because although Screwtape alone speaks words during the performance, he is accompanied by his personal assistance, Toadpipe, a foul demoness who caters to Screwtape’s whim. I must compliment the actress (it varies by performance) who played Toadpipe during the evening Seattle show. Her growls, animated fits and overreactions to any mention of God, prayer, love, etc., were met with howls of laughter from the audience. A show which easily could get mired down in heady contemplation, even when extolled from hell’s perspective by a debonair and skilled performer like McLean, but was avoided and made all the more accessible and enjoyable for all audience due to the humorous elements which Toadpipe brought to the show.

Overall, I was amazed at the quality of the production. Creating Christian-based material for general audiences is a tricky thing. Most Christian themed productions fall short when offered to audiences outside of their primary demographic. There are quantifiable reasons which can be pointed at to explain why: a lack of overall project funding, a low quality bar set for script and actors, poor production quality, etc. While certainly low production quality never helps you, as it sets the viewer’s expectations that the product content will also be of similarly low quality, but there is also another reason. The production has to set a balance between the seriousness of the issues being address and the desire for the audience to be engaged, drawn into the show, entertained and inspired to think about what they’ve witnessed after the show has ended.

The Screwtape Letters” strike just the right balance. McLean’s performance as the silver-tongued Screwtape just continues to strengthen throughout the show, as he proceeds to drop one disturbing yet thought-provoking one-line bomb after another, such as:

  • “…one of our best allies is the church itself”
  • “…the search for a ‘suitable’ church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil.”
  • “Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
  • “Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble’, and almost immediately pride –pride at his own humility –will appear.”

Screwtape (Max McLean) and Toadpipe in "The Screwtape Letters"

There are many ingenious little touches throughout the show, which add to the enjoyment. The few modern references added, the way that Screwtape’s office and his own appearance are linked as at the onset they are immaculate but over the course of the email exchange become increasingly more disheveled, the vacuum tube which carries the mail to and from Screwtape’s office and many more. The show is provocative and yet adds the right amount of humor to keep audiences entertained throughout.

It has been said that “The Screwtape Letters” may very well be the best use of reverse psychology ever created, as it provides a glimpse into the spiritual dimension and turns the world on its head, referring to God as the ‘Enemy’, Satan as “our father below” and it compels us to take a fresh and critical assessment of our own thoughts, actions and personal motivations for the things we do.

The Screwtape Letters” may be gone from Seattle after it’s very limited run but I enthusiastically encourage you to check it out at the other showings around the country. For more information about the show checkout: