Regional Reviews: Chicago
The Screwtape Letters
Also see John's review of Magnolia
Peter Kevoian is outstanding as the vainglorious Screwtape, an upper-level bureaucrat in the lower reaches, and Aislinn J. Mulligan is very funny his reptilian secretary. It seemed to me that I was surrounded by devout churchgoers, who laughed knowingly in all the right spotsthe women in the audience reacting, in particular, to the way demons had "influenced" fashion designers and celebrities, till all trace of femininity had been removed from the modern standard of beauty. But, really, anybody would be impressed with the delicious nefariousness of Mr. Kevoian and his minion, plotting in anguish after each little setback along the way to winning souls from God (a.k.a. "The Enemy").
Secretly, I was hoping that certain things from the book would be carried over into the play, but you can't just stand there and read the book for sixteen or twenty hours, of course, nor turn a man into a centipede in the wink of an eye, as Lewis does in print. But the play is, in fact, a remarkably economical and faithful distillation of what the struggle for faith (or faithlessness) is all about. True, the removal of the sub-plot of the Blitz also takes with it the discussion of nationalism, a fairly important failing in this (or any) age. But as a rule, raving nationalists rarely venture inside a professional theater at all, anymore.
So, as you might expect, there's a fair amount of preaching to the enlightened, Midwestern choir, albeit under the table. But the picture of Hades we get from Mr. Kevoian and Ms. Mulligan is often quite chilling, nevertheless. The show begins in the dark, with the sound of a deadly car crash, and opens with that demon chewing on a piece of newly damned flesh. Then we leap forward, in C.S. Lewis' writing career, to a piece called Screwtape Proposes a Toast, in which the devilish Mr. Kevoian lays the scene. After that, it's back to the title piece, and all is contempt and cold calculation. That bitterness is regularly relieved by signs of the gradual Christian progress of an Earthly "patient" who's bedeviled by Screwtape's nephewneither of whom ever appear on stage. The nephew (Wormwood) is constantly corrected and critiqued by Screwtape, in monologs that are both written and delivered with equal cleverness.
Most memorable, perhaps, is the quiet after a storm: Mr. Kevoian gives us dozens of ways of seeing how Christians can be knocked off balance by unseen demons, and then pulls back with great subtlety to note that the best way is often by leading an unsuspecting "patient" down a long, slow, gradual slope to damnation, rather than forcing them off some dramatic, high moral cliff. This quieter way, he advises his nephew, means those slipping into eventual damnation are never even aware of their descent until it's too late. The audience, full of knowing chuckles till then, falls dead silent in sudden self-examination.
The Screwtape Letters is set to close on April 12, 2009 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 North Southport, about four blocks north of the Brown Line stop on Southport (just south of Addison). For information call (773) 325-1700.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association