Max McLean, "The Screwtape Letters," Fellowship for the Performing Arts

BY ROBERT DIGITALE

Do you believe in evil spirits?

Do you imagine them as something akin to Harry Potter’s Death Eaters, or as some frightful, animal-faced demons of Asian sculpture and art? Red horns and tail, anyone?

On Saturday I was treated to a different sort of demon on stage at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. And this one, by its actor’s own admission, combined elements of Shakespeare’s Iago and “The Silence of the Lamb’s” Hannibal Lecter. At times there was a frantic touch of comedian Lewis Black, and it was all served up in the dark, mellifluous voice of a proper English gentleman, though his red-and-gold brocade smoking jacket seemed more reminiscent of a carnival barker.

The demon was the principal character in an adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters.”

Many moviegoers already have encountered Lewis, an Oxford professor and influential Christian writer who died in 1963. Anthony Hopkins portrayed him in the 1993 film “Shadowlands” (Yes, Hopkins did play Hannibal Lecter, too.) And Lewis’ popular children’s fantasy story made the big screen with the 2005 release of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

But it was his 1941 release of “The Screwtape Letters” that first brought Lewis to the attention of the American public and got him on the cover of Time Magazine, according to Max McLean, the actor who plays Screwtape, and who with Jeffrey Fiske adapted the novella for the stage.

The book looks up on human endeavors from Hell’s point of view. Lewis’s genius was in giving us a devil that isn’t a mere brute but rather a cunning sophisticate who would be at home in any modern corporate or philanthropic organization.

In the play, we see Screwtape composing a series of letters full of advice, threats and admonition to his nephew, a new “tempter” named Wormwood. The focus is on how to capture a young Englishman, “the patient.” Screwtape, an “under secretary of of the Satanic Lowerarchy,” dwells in a morally inverted universe ruled by “Our Father Below.” There, evil is good and love will never make sense. The bottom line is simple: tempters must bring Hell food (in the form of human souls) or become food themselves. That gives a new meaning to the closing line of each letter, “Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.”

It’s a sparse play with only two characters: Screwtape and his secretary, Toadpipe, a fantastical-looking creature who speaks no lines but helps dramatize the temptations that Screwtape envisions. The stage features a comfy leather arm chair and a walled backdrop of skulls and bones. A curved ladder and pneumatic mail tube – from which at the proper time red flashes rise or fall – help remind us of our view into the underworld.

The play succeeds in prompting viewers to think about the influences that can affect the choices we make for good or for ill. Screwtape believes it possible to play humans like violins. Get them annoyed at the behavior of those they live with and persuade them that the other person is bent on being an irritant. Get the devout to take pride in their humility or to become a Pharisee or an Inquisitor. Get the rest to be concerned with impressing the right people and slaving for self-aggrandizement. Screwtape relishes the too-late realization, “as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, ‘I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.’”

The point, McLean told the audience after the show, is found in the line: “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one.”

The production, which played for nine months in New York City, is currently on a 25-city national tour. It will be performed Feb. 18 in San Diego’s Balboa Theatre and March 3 at the Sacramento Community Center.

For more information, got to www.screwtapeonstage.com.