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Screwtape, a senior devil in the “Lowerarchy” of Hell, attempts to guide his somewhat hapless nephew Wormwood in securing the soul of a British man known only as “The Patient” in C.S. Lewis’s 1942 novel, “The Screwtape Letters.”
Over the years, the popular story has been adapted for the stage a number of times. The version playing the Tivoli on Saturday is “a very faithful adaptation of Lewis’s morally inverted universe,” according to director and co-adapter Max McLean.
The novel was written as a series of 31 letters between Screwtape and Wormwood, but a character called Toadpipe is mentioned as Screwtape’s secretary. “We utilize him onstage to manage the letters as Screwtape dictates and pontificates,” McLean says, noting that the Toadpipe character adds visual drama. The set design does as well, with electronic letters being “pulsated” up to Wormwood on Earth.
“People often point to the difficulty of adapting to the stage stories written in letters,” says McLean. “But in this case, managing the letters provides the opportunity to be theatrical and clever.”
Best known for the “Chronicles of Narnia” series, Lewis was a Christian “apologist” writer who came to his faith in a circuitous fashion, McLean says. “He dabbled in the occult … he was fascinated by penetrating the material curtain.” And this, McClean says, is one of the reasons all audience members, Christian and non-Christian, continue to enjoy “The Screwtape Letters.”
“Everyone is interested in the compelling nature of the spiritual world,” he says. “Lewis was one of a kind. He lived in his head, he was constantly having conversations in his head that he occasionally wrote down.” When he did, he wrote them down virtually verbatim. “The original manuscript is in the New York Public Library, and it flows along with very few corrections. Lewis read everything, he remembered everything, and he had a wonderful ability to synthesize everything,” McLean says.
This production of the play has been touring the country for a couple of years now, to great critical acclaim. When asked how he keeps the production fresh after so long on the road, McLean says, “Some material you get to the bottom of pretty quickly. With this material, so dense, so provocative—I feel I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of it. It keeps pushing me to go deeper. It’s a unique constellation of ideas.”
“The Screwtape Letters”
4 & 8 p.m. • Saturday, Feb. 9
Tivoli Theatre • 709 Broad St. • (423) 642-TIXS • chattanoogaonstage.com