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Witty map of the road to belief in one-man show about C.S. Lewis

Actor-writer Max McLean in his one-man show, "C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Mos Reluctant Convert," at Mercury Theater Chicago. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The British intellectual C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a man of many pursuits. A novelist, poet, literary critic, essayist, broadcaster, lecturer, academic (who spent much of his life at Oxford and Cambridge) and medievalist (who shared his interest in this period with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien), he is perhaps best known as the author of “The Screwtape Letters” (a satirical tale in which all the temptations and failings of a human life are examined from the viewpoint of devils) and “The Chronicles of Narnia” (a series of seven fantasy novels that stand as a classic of children’s literature).

In 2008, actor-adapter-director Max McLean brought his production of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” to the Mercury Theater Chicago, where it became a huge (and surprising) box office hit. Now, in his new one-man show, “C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert,” McLean chronicles the writer’s journey from determined atheist to Christian believer with such wit, grace, braininess and economy that those on either side of the “God spectrum” are sure to delight in it.

“C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert”
Highly recommended
When: Through Aug. 14
Where: Mercury Theater Chicago,
3745 N. Southport
Tickets: $55 – $59
Info: (773) 325-1700; www.CSLewisOnstage.com

Run time: 80 minutes with no intermission

McLean, who has adapted the show from Lewis’ autobiography, “Surprised by Joy,” his “Collected Letters” and other works, finds Lewis in middle age, and looking back at the momentous evolution that occurred in his thinking and spiritual outlook from childhood on. A masterful actor, he instantly convinces you that you are in the presence of C.S. Lewis himself, with the distinctive speech and bespectacled persona of the man enhanced by the elegant but lived-in three-piece suit supplied by costume designer Michael Bevins. And he is at his ease in a handsomely appointed study (set by Kelly James Tighe), with a great picture window whose three-dimensional imagery (projections by Rocco DiSanti and lighting by Geoffrey D. Fishburn) suggest the beauty and mystery of both the natural and man-made world.

We learn about Lewis’ boyhood as one of two sons of a successful solicitor whose prosecutorial tone ruled the day, and whose mother died of cancer (despite Lewis’ prayers) when he was still a young boy. Though Presbyterian by birth, he very early on rejected the church and all that went with it as he gorged on a diet of ancient Greek and Roman classics and modern languages. He went off to World War I while still in his teens, and while some on the battlefield turned to prayer, Lewis witnessed death and destruction and was only confirmed in his belief that this could not be the work of a supposedly “benevolent, omnipotent God.”

Max McLean in his one-man show, "C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert," at Mercury Theater Chicago through Aug. 14. (Photo: ....)

Max McLean in his one-man show, “C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert,” at Mercury Theater Chicago through Aug. 14. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Beyond that, looking out into the cosmos, he sensed that “nature is a sinking ship,” and that all civilizations, as well as planet Earth itself, would at some point cease to exist. Yet the more he embraced reality and the philosophy of materialism, and the notion that humans are nothing but a random interaction of atoms, the more tiny cracks began to appear in this confirmed atheist.

Lewis confesses to going through a period in which he was drawn to the occult, though he eventually came to understand that was just window-dressing. Clearly he yearned for something more, something beyond lust and mundane pleasure. And in a moment that might give Proust and his madeleine cookie some competition, he recalls the biscuit tin lid that was turned into an enchanting little garden by his brother many years earlier, and realizes that what he is really seeking is something he can only term “joy,” and the particular form of grief that inevitably comes with it.

The conversion has begun. His attitude toward his place and purpose in the cosmos is about to undergo a formidable shift as he sees the story of Christ in a whole new way. Standing in this world, Lewis tells us, is to be standing on the wrong side of the door.

Note: This show (co-directed by Ken Denison) is a production of the New York City-based Fellowship for Performing Arts which “produces theater from a Christian worldview presented in leading performance venues nationwide, and created to engage diverse audiences.” But be assured, it involves nothing even remotely resembling proselytizing. Rather, it is an exercise in questioning the very essence of what it means to be alive. And you can remain an avid doubter even as you enjoy its bristling, provocative, highly entertaining arguments.