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Devil hits success on Chicago stage

Max McLean on stage as Screwtape in “The Screwtape Letters”

A play about devils has become a “scorching” success in Chicago, where even Christians are flocking to the theater to witness the stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters.”

Max McLean, producer of the show and the original actor to portray ol’ Screwtape himself, says the play’s popularity lies in its appeal to both Christian and secular audiences.

“Lewis is huge with both the Catholic and the evangelical Protestant audience,” McLean told the Chicago Tribune. “For everybody else, the devil always captures the imagination.”

The play has also captured the box office. According to Mercury Theatre owner Michael Cullen, “The Screwtape Letters” has become the most financially successful show in the venue’s history.

“It is doing phenomenal business,” Cullen told the Tribune, “Every performance has been at or near capacity.”

And while the show doesn’t release its total receipts, Tribune theater reporter Chris Jones estimates that the nearly 300-seat venue has been making almost $50,000 per week since September, a total approaching a million dollars over its run at the Mercury.

Set in an eerie but luxurious office somewhere in hell, the play portrays C.S. Lewis’ classic tale of a senior devil, Screwtape, instructing a novice demon, Wormwood, on how to tempt a Christian man away from God, whom Screwtape refers to as “the Enemy.”

Lewis, who penned many books, including the beloved childrens’ series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” once admitted that “Screwtape” may have been his most difficult work to write.

“I never wrote with less enjoyment,” Lewis said. “The strain produced a spiritual cramp.”

“The world in which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst and itch,” said Lewis. “Every trace of beauty, freshness and geniality had to be excluded.”

The stage adaptation depicts Screwtape as a sophisticate in a smoking jacket (the pun seemingly intended) dictating letters to his lithe, slithering, and often humorous demon assistant, Toadpipe.

A sample video from the play’s performance can be seen below:

According to the current production’s website, the initial production of “The Screwtape Letters” opened in New York City in 2006 for a limited three-week run, but demand extended it for 11 sold-out weeks. It also played in Washington, D.C., and is selling tickets at Chicago’s Mercury Theatre through March, though McLean told the Tribune no end date has yet been established.

McLean is president and executive producer of the Fellowship of Performing Arts, a non-profit arts organization that holds as its mission “to produce theatre from a Christian worldview that is engaging to a diverse audience.”

In “Screwtape,” the FPA has hit its challenging mission on the head.

“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,” writes NYTheatre.com reviewer Daniel Kelley. “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.”

The play also got a glowing review from a woman listed only as Annette on the FPA website:

“My husband and I gave our family tickets to ‘The Screwtape Letters’ for Christmas! (No, the irony of celebrating the Lord’s birth with tickets to hell wasn’t lost on us),” writes Annette. “Both of my children (14 and 10 years old) are huge C.S. Lewis fans, and ‘The Screwtape Letters’ was a great way to move them into the more challenging Lewis material after ‘Narnia.'”