A dungeon in hell sets the stage for this production of C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters." The story follows the temptor demon, Screwtape, dictating letters of instruction to his temptor-in-training nephew, Wormwood, on how to convince unwitting humans to turn to the dark side and part with their souls.
Screwtape is portrayed by Max McLean, who along with Jeffrey Fiske adapted the novel for the stage. McLean originated the role, and played Screwtape in both the New York and Washington, D.C. runs. His command of the material is profound, and his deep voice lends an eerie—yet desperate—feel to his dictation. In his speaking, and in his reading of his unseen nephew's responses to his letters, it becomes clear that evil is failing in the realm above due to humans having the ability to fall in love and their nature to seemingly want to practice good deeds. If Screwtape doesn't ramp up his efforts, evil's days could be numbered.
Taking dictation is the screechy, crawling creature Toadpipe, who seems to be a pet of Screwtape's. Oddly, Toadpipe looks like The Wicked Witch of the West if she were wearing a flying monkey costume out of the Wizard of Oz. Yvonne Gougelet, who portrays Toadpipe, isn't given a lot to do except crawl about in freakish costume and screech uncontrollably as if she were ready to join a cat rodeo at stage right. The screeching gets a few laughs at first, but quickly dissolves into pure annoyance.
The strengths of "The Screwtape Letters" include the scenic design by Cameron Anderson, lighting by Tyler Micoleau and sound design by Bart Fisbinder. From the skull-studded wall, the stage floor lit from below and the endless rolling smoke to the endless trap doors used by Toadpipe, the audience is made to feel far below the Earth's surface.
Otherwise, though, you may feel as if you're back in a college lecture hall watching the clock, or listening to a windbag of a reverend delivering an endless sermon peppered with shouts, shrieks and cackles that keeps waking you up in the back pew.
The subject matter is right for the season, but after 90 minutes without an intermission, you may feel that you'll never escape this dungeon.