Before he was arguably the most celebrated Christian writer of the twentieth century, C.S. Lewis was a staunch atheist similar to Christopher Hitchens with sharp-tongued oratory skills to match. His transformation into a believer in Jesus Christ took twenty years, but actor Max McLean will enact this conversion over the course of eighty minutes in “C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert,” a one-man show playing at The Granada Theatre tomorrow.
In an interview with the News-Press, the actor described playing Mr. Lewis as “a delight.” For him, the experience of embodying the author’s philosophy, storytelling ability, and powers of observation is one of inexhaustible depths.
“It’s an actor’s dream. You don’t get to the bottom of it,” he said.
Mr. McLean is the founder and artistic director of the New York City-based Fellowship for Performing Arts, which produces theater from a Christian worldview. When he started the company over twenty years ago, he was already a working actor and wanted to find a way to include his faith in his work by putting on productions that expressed Christianity in a way that was nuanced and thoughtful. Mr. McLean is very familiar with the works of C.S. Lewis, as “C.S. Lewis Onstage” follows FPA’s stage adaptations of the author’s novels “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Great Divorce.” These novels reflect stages of Mr. Lewis’ conversion experience, a process that so fascinated Mr. McLean that he wanted to dedicate an entire performance to it. Mr. McLean wrote the script for “C.S. Lewis Onstage” by adapting it from the author’s writings and inserting insights from his autobiography and the many letters he wrote throughout his life. As he acts out Mr. Lewis’ switch from atheist to believer, Mr. McLean said the audience will get a vivid look at what it means to have a religious experience.
“They’re going to get inside a religious experience probably in more detail than they ever have,” he said.
According to Mr. McLean, the play begins with C.S. Lewis articulating what he believed as an atheist, an unbelief that was influenced by the loss of his mother at a young age, his strained relationship with his father, and the horror he witnessed while serving in the British army in World War I. The play then proceeds to his years following the war, during which he started to read the works of writers from Dante to G.K. Chesterton and forged formative relationships with notable believers like “The Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkein, who was instrumental in bringing Mr. Lewis to faith.
“He couldn’t figure out Jesus until he had a talk with Tolkein,” Mr. McLean said.
With FPA, Mr. McLean frequently performs at colleges and universities, where he finds many students who admire the work of C.S. Lewis and how “entertainingly rigorous” they are. In his view, Mr. Lewis’ stories present deep-rooted philosophy and theology in a manner that is not only well-reasoned, but imaginative as well. This mix of reason and imagination is why he believes Mr. Lewis’ popularity continues to this day.
“He puts those two together in a way that I don’t know anyone else who does,” Mr. McLean said. Tickets for “C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert” cost between $49 and $69 and can be purchased online at www.granadasb.org. The performance begins tomorrow at 4 p.m. at The Granada Theatre, located at 1214 State St.