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Letters from the abyss

On Jan. 25, the Baton Rouge River Center Theatre will host two performances of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, directed by Max McLean and starring Brent Harris as the title demon, Screwtape.

C.S. Lewis may be best known by the general public as the author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first in his popular Chronicles of Narnia series, but for many theologians and scholars, Lewis is renowned as one of Christianity’s great philosophers. Mere Christianity is his most straightforwardly theological work, but many consider The Screwtape Letters to be a more fascinating story. The original text, first published in 1942, is a novel that takes the form of letters written by an upper-level demon, His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, a Junior Tempter.

“Our play is very close to the book,” McLean said. “Screwtape is one of the great literary creations of the last century; he loves the way he talks, the way he dresses, he’s the smartest guy in the room. He’s so much fun to listen to and to watch. He’s part Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello, part Hannibal Lecter, part Oscar Wilde. He’s such a fascinating character.”

The series of letters from Screwtape to Wormwood concern the lesser imp’s attempts to deliver the soul of a man identified only as “The Patient” to “Our Father Below,” also known as Satan.

“It’s probably one of the best examples of reverse psychology in all of literature,” McLean said. “Lewis created this morally inverted universe, and there is a real sense of irony and satire. I think this is a theological work where he imagines how a devil thinks, and he has this power of concentration. I don’t know how he does it; that is a hard conceit to deliver straightforwardly.”

McLean, who originated the role of Screwtape in New York, Chicago, D.C. and on a national tour, has great confidence in Brent Harris as a performer. “We hired a casting director in New York and she put out a notice in the trades. She saw, personally, about 150 actors, and she asked me to see 18, and out of that 18 was Brent.”

When asked what about Harris’s performance spoke to McLean, he said that Harris “had a real sense of the material.” Harris has previously portrayed Scar in the National Tour of The Lion King, Lucifer in Dr. Faustus, Iago in Othello, Salieri in Amadeus, Olivier in Orson’s Shadow, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the title role in Macbeth.

“First of all, his presence is very commanding; he has a deep resonant voice that sounds a little bit between Jeremy Irons and Vincent Price.”

McLean is also currently working on a new stage adaptation of The Great Divorce, another of Lewis’s theological fantasies that deals with the concepts of Heaven and Hell.

When asked what it was about Lewis’s writing he found so captivating, McLean was effusive: “Lewis has always been very, very challenging,” he said. “This morning I was reading his essay on miracles and he just lets me see things in a way that I ordinarily don’t. He understands satire and irony and he makes me laugh. And he certainly makes me think.”

Normally, works of such theological importance would hardly be considered entertaining stage material, but McLean is confident in the magnetism of Screwtape and Harris, saying that the primary ingredient in performance and the most important part of theatre is entertainment, and that The Screwtape Letters delivers in that arena.

Lewis described himself as “the most reluctant convert in all of England,” and McLean had a great deal to say about why that was the case, and how Lewis’s conversion related to one of his most widely quoted writings: “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”

“He really captures my imagination in a deep way,” McLean said. “If something doesn’t capture your imagination, you won’t be motivated to apply your rationality to it. The first thing you want is to entertain; after that, the questions that it evokes become important.”

The River Center Theatre’s two performances are scheduled for 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 25, and doors open an hour before the performance. Tickets are available at the River Center Box Office, Ticketmaster Outlets, online at www.TicketMaster.com, and by phone at 1.800.745.3000. Tickets are $29 to $49; student seats are $20 (student ID required). Groups of 10 or more (including student groups) should call 866.476.8707.

The Screwtape Letters

Baton Rouge River Center

Jan. 25 • 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. • $29-49; $20 with student ID

BRrivercenter.com or 225.389.3030

TicketMaster.com • Screwtapeonstage.com

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