A woman in her early 20s came up to Max McLean after a performance of his latest one-man play, C.S. Lewis On Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert, and said she couldn’t possibly be a Christian. Sensing her anxiety, McLean told her, “God has you in his net and he’s not going to let you go.” Her response surprised him. “What should I do,” she asked. He told her to read John’s gospel, gave her his card and they arranged a time to talk.
Such is the intensity of the story McLean has written and is portraying at Off-Broadway’s Acorn Theatre through May 21. “People have associations that get in the way and they can’t get past them. Theatre and art have a way of breaking through stigmas,” he said, quoting Lewis’ notion of “stealing past the watchful dragons.”
“His conversion is a roadmap for people who have given up.”
Lewis has been important to McLean’s life since he too was in his early 20s. He grew up Roman Catholic in a military family. First Communion and Confirmation were meaningful to him, but in his teens he stopped going to church and “fell into atheism, more by anger than anything else.” He experimented with Eastern religions in college, in keeping with the trend of the 1970s. Then he met the woman who would become his wife. A Christian, she took him to church and introduced him to other Christians, one of whom described Jesus as having been a historical person just like George Washington. This triggered in McLean a sense that Jesus was something more than the “fairy tale” character he had grown up imagining.
The first thing he did was read John’s gospel. His second choice for Christian reading was Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, which he described as “over my head,” followed by Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, which he “got immediately.”
McLean continues to respect the way Lewis opens his readers to the supernatural world, something he thinks the modern church, in its desire to simplify and demystify, is missing.
“Lewis is my spiritual guide,” McLean said during a telephone interview in late February. “He helps me understand reality in a way I wouldn’t see or understand. He believed so strongly in how the supernatural world interacts with ours. He triggers my imagination in a way almost no other writer does.”
Deciding to portray that spiritual guide onstage was a natural progression for the actor/writer. He had adapted and performed The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce for the stage. In doing so, he read extensively works by and about Lewis.
“In 2011 the idea came to me to attempt to tell his own story.” He spent two or thee months working on a first draft, then put it away until a year and a half ago when he began working on it through “a hefty development process” that included labs and workshops before the show premiered in Washington, D.C. last April. It then played Chicago and had a little midwestern tour before the current New York premiere. About 90 percent of the 80-minute script is Lewis’ words.
“I’m not as smart as he was,” McLean says. “My confidence comes from knowing what an extraordinary writer he was.”
The play, which is performed without an intermission, takes place in Lewis’ Study in Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1950 and tells the story of Lewis’ life from the time of his mother’s death from cancer when he was 10, through his estranged relationship with his father, his World War I experience, his avowed atheism and his conversion.
“Conversion stories are inherently dramatic,” McLean says. “It’s something you fight against. The tension is almost like an invasion. In Christian language, we’re all rebels. The Incarnation is a kind of invasion, taking back enemy territory.”
He said the play’s title helps attract more than just Lewis fans because it’s intriguing. “A convert means to change and reluctant means to avoid. That was the guiding principle to the piece.” He said he needed to set up why Lewis was an atheist — his mother’s death, his relationship with his father and fighting and being wounded in the war.
“That gave him an extremely pessimistic view of reality. To turn from that was very challenging.” McLean identified the fulcrum of the play as the tension between atheism and theism. “Once I knew how I wanted to go, I knew what to take out and what to put in.”
With the help of a three-piece suit, pipe and wig of thinning, combed-back hair, McLean transforms into Lewis and tells his story to the audience. In preparation for the “forest of words to navigate,” he listened to three audio clips he found online. In one, Lewis sounds “almost Alfred Hitchcockish.” In the others he is more relaxed. “He was Irish but he took on an Oxford Don pronunciation that was very erudite and educated.”
In preparing for and portraying Lewis, McLean says the “Number One thing” he has learned was about Lewis’ “generosity of spirit.
“He was a strange mixture of being incredibly self-reflective and not taking himself too seriously. He had self-deprecating humor. His basic nature was to be very proud and arrogant and he buried that.
“I feel like I know him. I feel like he’s my buddy. With so many writers you get to the bottom of them quickly. You don’t get to the bottom of Lewis.”
McLean attributes this to deep insight.
“He read everything from the Greeks to the moderns and he could remember everything. He was a chronicler of literature who was able to see how the Christian view of the world best absorbed all the world views he read.”