Devilish and Divine
Several times a week, Max McLean does something that most would want to avoid—forever.
He goes to hell. On purpose. And he has a devil of a good time doing it.
McLean, you see, is the eponymous star of The Screwtape Letters, a stage adaptation of C. S. Lewis's classic that has played to sold-out audiences over the last year and wowed critics in New York, Washington, D.C., and, most recently, Chicago.
For the part, McLean slicks back his silvery hair, dons a colorful smoking jacket, and—from a stage short on props but clearly representing a corner of the underworld—becomes a demon. Specifically, as Lewis put it, "His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, Under Secretary of the Satanic Lowerarchy." For 90 minutes, McLean dictates—with precise articulation to his wordless assistant, Toadpipe—those infamous instructional letters addressed to his nephew, Wormwood, a junior demon who is trying to lead his "patient," a new Christian, into temptation.
Lewis wrote that composing Screwtape had been a daunting task: "I never wrote with less enjoyment. … The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The world into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done."
McLean understands why Lewis, as the author, would feel that way. But as an actor, McLean feels nothing of the sort when he morphs into the character.
"It's really fun to play," he says with almost as much relish as when he's on stage. "I hate to admit it, but it really is. It's part Noel Coward, part Hannibal Lecter, part Iago in Shakespeare's Othello. One reviewer said that what I do is part ham actor, part psychologist, and part anarchist.
"I can see why Lewis saw it as all 'dust and grit,' because he's doing the real hard digging of creative work. But what I'm doing is interpretive work, so I don't have to dig that hard. That's probably why it's so fun to play."
Critics have noticed. The Wall Street Journal proclaimed it "one hell of a good show," saying that McLean is "delightfully repulsive." The Chicago Tribune: "A very smart, crystal clear, and honestly intended reading of Lewis's richly rewarding prose by the compelling McLean." The Washington Post: "Screwtape swaggers … Sometimes he paces in irritation, biting off his words with disdain; sometimes he flings his arms about, snarling and bellowing as he gets carried away by his own Mephistophelean passions." And National Review: "[McLean] is both charming and gruesome. … An outstanding piece of work."
Giving a Voice to Scripture
McLean has mostly earned his living with his fabulous voice, having recorded three audio versions—New International, King James, and English Standard—of the Listener's Bible. He also hosts the daily radio program Listen to the Bible, which airs on over 670 radio affiliates worldwide.
McLean's love for God's Word began when he became a Christian, just out of college in 1976. His family was in Germany, where his father, a military man, was stationed. McLean started attending a nearby English-speaking Baptist church, "not because I was interested in anything religious," but because he was interested in a young woman there. (That woman, Sharon, has now been his wife for 32 years.)