Imagine that at this very moment, a demon sits in an office in hell, plotting your fate. He's cool, sophisticated and intensely charming, but it is his singular goal to very calmly and carefully direct you toward an end that results in your soul on his dinner plate.
This is the aim of Screwtape, demon-mentor extraordinaire and star of the traveling production The Screwtape Letters.
A 90-minute production performed entirely in monologue and directly adapted from C.S. Lewis' book, The Screwtape Letters follows the written correspondence of demon psychiatrist Screwtape as he counsels demon-in-training Wormwood in the practice of gently urging a human, referred to throughout the novel as "the patient," down the slippery slope to eternal damnation.
Fifty-seven-year-old Max McLean co-created this adaptation with playwright and director Jeffrey Fiske, and has played Screwtape since their play opened off-Broadway in 2006. It's been touring the country with the ongoing support of the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, which McLean leads and which purchased the story's rights years ago.
In Colorado Springs, Screwtape was garnering similar acclaim last year, when Focus on the Family's radio theater was a finalist for the Audio Publishers Association's Best Audio Drama award with its production of the story.
McLean points out that though Screwtape is a soul-eating demon, his character is incredibly likeable, suggesting that the audience is attracted to him in part for his sophistication, his humor and the fact that he is very good at his particular line of work.
"When I was first trying to create the character, a couple of images came to mind very quickly," McLean says. "One was Iago from Shakespeare's Othello. Honest Iago, gaining your confidence and then finding your weak spot and manipulating you.
"The other was Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. Again, the charm, the absolute confidence, and yet, underneath that veneer there's a vampire, there's a devil."
A third element, according to McLean, was just a hint of literary genius Oscar Wilde, whose cleverness and pride injected just the right amount of spice into Screwtape's persona.
Though the process of adapting a book composed entirely of letters to the stage did lead to some alteration, McLean and Fiske worked to stay as close to Lewis' original material as possible. They focused in on two essential arcs in the story to allow audiences to access both the plot and the humor that goes along with it: the progressive journey of the patient from indifference to Christian devotion, and the deterioration that Screwtape experiences as his attempts and advice prove unsuccessful.
"The story is a predator-prey story," McLean says. "Screwtape is a predator and the patient is prey. Both are such pleasing journeys for the audience because the audience sort of sees themselves as the patient, and yet as they watch Screwtape, they like Screwtape."
McLean also points out that both Lewis' skill as a writer and intent as a theologian assisted in shaping the rising and falling actions of the production.
"I think his purpose is pretty clear," McLean says. "He loved to teach Christian theology and he loved to tell stories.
"[He] wanted, and our point too, to pull the veil from the material world that we live in all the time and point out this very active spiritual world that is imposing itself on us for good and for evil. Talking to us, speaking to us, and yet we don't have ears to hear."