- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 21, 2010

Perhaps everyone by now has at least heard of Max McLean’s production of “Screwtape,” the famous play about the letters of a senior devil (Screwtape) to Wormwood, a junior tempter.

I am one of 75,000 people who have seen the 90-minute play.

In an era when many movie studios are nervous about filming anything too overtly Christian, here’s a stage production that keeps drawing them in. Its recent Washington run, which closed Sunday, was extended two weeks, and Mr. McLean will be on the road shortly to tour Houston and Austin, Texas, and then back to New York. The play ran for six months last year in Chicago.

Mr. McLean, who plays Screwtape in the two-man show, has his Fellowship for the Performing Arts (FPA) based in nearby Morristown, N.J., but a year ago, it opened a Manhattan office on West 42nd Street as a space for plays, rehearsals and Bible studies.

“It’s a small group, but more and more are coming,” he said about the Bible studies. “These are the Christians on Broadway who are acting in shows like ‘Shrek’ and ‘Phantom.’ They want to do good work, and they want work that speaks deeply.”

Mr. McLean attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church on the Upper East Side, which has a ministry to Christians in the arts, a bit unusual for Reformed churches. Founders of the Reformation in the 16th century were better known for destroying religious art, not encouraging it.

“There is a very strong artistic component in the Reformed tradition,” the actor told me. “It really came from Francis Schaeffer,” a Christian philosopher who rose to prominence in mid-20th century, “who was important in encouraging the arts.”

That’s true. I visited Mr. Schaeffer’s Swiss retreat, L’Abri, in 1975 and spent all my free afternoons listening to tapes about why Christians should be involved in theater and writing.

Born in Panama, Mr. McLean grew up as a nominal Catholic, left religion then became a born-again Christian in 1976 at a Bible study. Growing disenchanted with the life of an actor, he left theater to enroll in seminary.

He became intrigued with the idea of dramatic presentations of the Bible and began recording the Good Book in three translations, eventually doing one-man shows on Genesis, the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Mark. He taped famous speeches, such as Great Awakening revivalist Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

The actor also incorporated his organization in 1992 as a nonprofit to support his vision of bringing the Christian faith closer to the performing arts. Jeffrey Fiske, a theater professor at Drew University who saw Mr. McLean’s Genesis performance, asked if he had ever considered playing the part of Screwtape, the famous senior devil in “The Screwtape Letters,” by the 20th-century intellectual giant and Cambridge University professor C.S. Lewis.

Mr. Fiske ended up directing the current production, which has played almost always to sold-out houses.

“Lewis is very popular among evangelical Christians, Catholics and Mormons, I am coming to find out,” Mr. McLean said, “but there’s a growing Jewish audience coming to the show. A lot of people like that book. Lewis crosses barriers that other Christian writers are not able to do.”

The actor is planning to stage “The Great Divorce,” another Lewis novel.

“I enjoy work that is overtly Christian,” he said, “and this deals with demons and spiritual warfare. You have to make good choices as to what you invest in and make a commitment to execute it really well as other people will judge this.”

Julia Duin can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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