C.S. Lewis‘s The Screwtape Letters is more overtly religious than his allegorical children’s books. But just as an appreciation for the Narnia tales does not require a belief in talking animals and magic wardrobes, you don’t need to believe in demons or the specter of eternal damnation to enjoy this classic piece of Christian apologia. As is clear in the dramatization currently staged by Lantern Theater Company, the genius of Lewis’s work comes in looking at what constitutes a good person (a good Christian, in his zeitgeist) from the unlikely point of view of evil incarnate.
The personification of wickedness comes in the form of Screwtape (Anthony Lawton, who also adapted the book for the Lantern), a senior demon in the “lowerarchy” of hell. Stuck in the infernal bureaucracy and in turn tormented and aided by assistant demon Toadpipe (Kim Carson), Screwtape is penning a series of advisory letters (31 in the book, a concise 11 in this staging) to his nephew Wormwood, a novice temptor trying to win his first soul for the “Father Below.”
Using these Stygian epistles as his device, Lewis delves into the human condition, considering how we become distracted by “worldly pleasures” (sex, drinking, intellectualism) into doing, as Screwtape smugly puts it “neither what [we] ought nor what [we] like.” In Lewis’s reckoning, the simple pleasures of taking a walk or reading a book are a sure path to salvation, whereas enjoying the company of smart, witty non-believers is a good step toward damnation.
Lawton’s staging of The Screwtape Letters has proved enduringly popular: this is the fourth production by the Lantern. It is always challenging to bring to stage a work not originally intended for that medium, but each run has provided an opportunity to refine the dramatization. It is only unfortunate that his partner from the last two iterations, Genevieve Perrier, was unable to reprise her role as Toadpipe, though Carson (who recently graced the area with two excellent performances as Cordelia in the People’s Light and Theatre’s King Learand Anna-Lisa in InterAct’s When We Go Upon the Sea) is a competent replacement.
On stage, the letters are accompanied by images on a back screen. This device is generally successful, although it does seems dramatically irresponsible to evoke cheap audience response from such tragic images as concentration camp inmates, that infamous photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack, and Lindsay Lohan.
In between each letter, Screwtape and Toadpipe engage in a various show acts: tap-dancing, fire-eating, and staff-fighting, among others. These welcome transitions nicely break-up a concise, entertaining staging true to Lewis’s intent.
At times, that intent reveals an unappealing conservatism in its attitude to, for example, post-modernism,urban society, and liberated women (a chauvinism that Lawton’s production misguidedly plays up). But at heart, Lewis believes that salvation lies in kindness to those around you (and not just to abstract others), in self-awareness, in making commitments and seeing them through, and most importantly, in love. In this way, his do-good Church of England Christianity is not too different than this reviewer’s do-good Church of England atheism.
In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis and Lawton (a professed Catholic) show something that seems too often missing in outspoken Christians and historic Christianity: a solid, noble, moral compass.
The Screwtape Letters
By C.S. Lewis, adapted by Anthony Lawton
The Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater
Published by Philly2Philly.