The Screwtape Letters
nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
November 1, 2007
The Screwtape Letters is just about everything you want in a night at the theatre. Thought-provoking, engaging, entertaining, well produced, performed and directed, and all based around the wonderful words of C.S. Lewis.
The Screwtape Letters, as the title implies, takes the form of a series of letters between Screwtape, a senior devil in the employ of "Our Father Below," and Wormwood, his young nephew who has just started on his devilish way. The letters concern Wormwood's first time tempting a mortal man away from God. Wormwood, however, is never seen onstage. Instead, we hear Wormwood's story reflected in Screwtape's letters that ridicule and criticize the young devil and his youthful mistakes. Screwtape himself delivers these letters on stage, extemporaneously to the audience, putting us in the position of Wormwood, to have our ideas of good and evil challenged and changed.
Playwright-director Jeffrey Fiske does a great job of adapting and dramatizing The Screwtape Letters. For instance, throughout the play, Screwtape delivers monologues about certain kinds of people that Wormwood's mortal should and shouldn't associate with. While the descriptions of these people are as apt now as they were when they were written, Fiske uses a silent henchman character, Toadpipe, to act out these people physically. This is an excellent dramatic and visual choice, which gives a further dimension to the drama. Karen Eleanor Wight, as Toadpipe, makes full use of this part. Her transformations are as startling as they are recognizable. Each time she transforms, the audience gave a little appreciative laugh, as though saying, "Yes, I know exactly who that person is!"
Through it all, Screwtape is a charismatic and engaging host. Max McLean as Screwtape does a marvelous job of driving the show. His profound understanding and mastery of this text and the ideas it presents is evident throughout. He portrays the full scope of Screwtape's character, alternating between wit and brutality, urbanity and savage hatred and violence.
In addition, the design team does an excellent job setting the scene and mood of the piece. Cameron Anderson's minimalist set does an excellent job of evoking the stylish lair of a senior devil. Bart Fasbender's sound design acts as excellent punctuation for the drama throughout, and especially towards the end. Tyler Micoleau's lights evoke the alienating and strange world of the devils.
With all this marvelous stagecraft going on—from directors and actors, to writers and designers—my one question upon leaving the theatre was this: Why were my companion and I the youngest people in the theatre by at least 10 to 15 years?
There are obvious answers to this question, of course, foremost among them being the ticket price, and the fact that the generation that grew up reading The Screwtape Letters is a generation far more than 10 or 15 years older than I.
The fact remains, however, that The Screwtape Letters is a play that should and, for my companion and myself, did resonate with my life and the lives of my peers. For instance, when Screwtape talks about the pompous heady-pseudo intellectuals that Wormwood's mortal is associating with, they might very well be the posturing, ripped-jeans-wearing hipsters often seen around Williamsburg these days. Or when Screwtape tells Wormwood, after his mortal has come through a great ordeal and become humble, that the surefire way to turn that humility into pride is to have him write a book about it, the whole audience laughed appreciatively, no doubt thinking of entire genres of self-help books of the "I've done this, and you can too!" variety.
Perhaps the most overwhelmingly alienating part of The Screwtape Letters for people in the age group of my companion and myself—ironic post-college twentysomethings—is the play's strong identification with Christianity. C.S. Lewis is one of the giants of Christian writing in the 20th century. Among many of my peers, Christianity is something for bible-thumpers and right-wing conservatives—something that we are predisposed to mock rather than venerate. In the sketch comedy world, where I work frequently, sketches featuring Jesus Christ are so common they are cliché.
It is therefore doubly important that ironic post-college twentysomethings like myself go and see The Screwtape Letters. What is presented is an intelligent, accessible, bitingly satirical and funny exploration of profound issues of right and wrong. This is not bible-thumping, this is serious meditation on issues having to do with the human experience—and it is important reminder of what Christianity can be. Whether you're Christian, Muslim, Jew or any other religion under the sun, The Screwtape Letters explores fundamental questions about how we live our lives, and make the decisions that we make.
In addressing the audience, Screwtape is addressing Wormwood, his youthful, inexperienced nephew on the nature of the world. It might be beneficial for those who are young like Wormwood to go and see this play.