Max McLean and Karen Eleanor Wight
in The Screwtape Letters
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Max McLean and Karen Eleanor Wight
in The Screwtape Letters
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Long before Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis gave readers The Screwtape Letters, a series of wildly ironic epistles from the titular Screwtape, a counselor at the Tempters Training College to one of his charges, the unseen Wormwood, a devil-in-the-making. While the morals of the book remain relevant, this stage adaptation by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean, now at St. Clement's Church, fails to carry any substantial dramatic weight.

In his letters, Screwtape (played by McLean) advises Wormwood on how to handle his "patient," a human whom Wormwood has been charged with tempting into sin. If Wormwood is successful in his work, the unnamed human will enjoy an afterlife in Hell. Screwtape relishes some of Wormwood's reports. For instance, when the human becomes acquainted with a group of vain, self-centered people, Screwtape sees Wormwood's imminent success. At other times, Screwtape must be stern with his student, advising him on how to move the patient away from a newfound piety or worse, still, a devout woman with whom the human falls in love.

McLean -- clad in Victorian finery by costume designer Michael Bevins - cuts a grand figure as Screwtape. His rounded tones, mellifluous voice, and clipped British pronunciation are gorgeous and bring to mind the likes of Basil Rathbone and Maurice Evans. Most important, under Fiske's sure-handed direction, McLean never overemphasizes or comments on the irony inherent in Lewis' text; this is a performance that is deadly serious and entirely committed. McLean's Screwtape speaks with an authority befitting a highly placed assistant to "Our Father Below."

As effective as McLean's performance is, however, we too quickly understand what Letters is up to. This is a moral lesson, where the dramatic weight rests completely on what becomes of the unseen patient and which path he takes offstage: one of righteousness or one which ensures his damnation. A threat of scandal and an act of duplicity by the (also unseen) Wormwood raise the stakes in the piece, but only marginally.

Throughout, a lizard-like underling with a crop of bright pink hair, Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight), takes dictation from this otherworldly advisor. Toadpipe, at times, also falls under the spell of Screwtape, and acts out certain behaviors which underscore the behaviors that will ensure the fall of Wormwood's "patient" and other humans. Here, Wright's performance consistently displays a grace and physical humor that is most welcome as the lessons of the work flow.

Scenic designer Cameron Anderson provides an almost Gothic raked runaway of cobblestones that cuts across the vast stage. Curls of fog, which shift colors beautifully thanks to Tyler Micoleau's lighting design, billow alongside the sloped set where Screwtape strides and composes his missives.

While these letters might fascinate and enlighten on the page, on stage, they fail to compel.