The cat-and-mouse story has been acted out in countless works of the screen, stage and page, but what happens when the cat is the devil’s psychiatrist and the mouse is the audience?
The imaginative and often visceral play "The Screwtape Letters," an adaptation of the C.S. Lewis novel by the same name, will appear at the Tivoli Theatre Saturday, Feb. 9.
The two-show engagement—a matinee at 4 p.m. and an evening performance at 8 p.m.—marks the second time the play has come to Chattanooga.
The play’s national tour has been running for the past two years and has had lengthy runs in New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and stops in 50 major cities to play for more than 250,000 audience members.
“Lewis has a huge brand, and 'The Screwtape Letters' has also gained a follow,” Max McLean, director and co-director, said. “When you put those two together with a track record of being entertaining and provocative, you have something you can work with.”
On the devil’s couch
The production’s basic plot revolves around the training of a would-be demon, Wormwood, by Satan’s ranking psychiatrist, His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, and the doctor’s helper, Toadpipe.
The latter two attempt to teach the apprentice the finer skills of corrupting a human and damning a soul to hell.
The one-act play is a full 85 minutes with roughly 16 different scenes and is actually a two-man show, as the character of Wormwood never appears on stage.
That device allows the diabolical psychiatrist to speak directly to the audience as if it were the apprentice.
“I think that’s one of the blessings—if that’s the right word—surprise blessings of the play,” McLean said. “It’s very smart, and it's got this constellation of ideas: Good is bad, God is the enemy and Satan is called 'Our Father' below. The audience has the experience of being in the presence of the devil, and it's pretty scary.”
McLean has been involved with “The Screwtape Letters” since the first draft of the adaptation, written with Jeff Fiske in 2005. The play has been revised and tweaked since, and McLean joked it is now in its 15th draft.
The director has also spent the majority of the national tour playing the title character. Brent Harris, who played Scar in “The Lion King” national tour, will be performing as Screwtape in Chattanooga.
Lewis first published “The Screwtape Letters” in 1942 as a collection of letters from the voice of Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. The author credited the novel’s origins to his experience of hearing Adolf Hitler deliver his 1940 "Reichstage" speech.
Lewis later wrote that when he listened to what he knew to be factually untrue statements spoken with such conviction it was difficult not to momentarily believe the lie.
McLean will be on hand for the question-and-answer session following both performances. The post-show interaction is a tradition that emerged during the New York City run, when an enthralled majority of the audience stuck around after the house lights came up.
The director attributes it to the play’s ability to stay true to Lewis’ style and mission and to engage audience members’ imaginations in such a way that they can’t help but want to talk about it.
“It’s like you’re in the other room, overhearing someone talking about you,” McLean said. “You’re going to be pretty interested. They may be talking about stuff you don’t want known. You may be thinking, 'How do they know that?' and 'Why are they using that against me?' Now, you’re all ears.”
Tickets to “The Screwtape Letters” at the Tivoli Theatre range from $39 to $59 and can be purchased online or by calling 423-642-8497. Student tickets, discounted to $25, are available.