It takes a good deal of cunning to “steal past watchful dragons,” but Max McLean’s stage production of The Great Divorce rises to the challenge, raising questions of eternal significance with disarming ease, showcasing McLean’s commitment to creating culture from a Christian worldview.
The 90-minute show, now touring nationally after its December launch in Phoenix, is the second Lewis adaptation from the Fellowship for the Performing Arts. It follows in the footsteps of The Screwtape Letters, which met with wide acclaim from both sacred and secular critics.
While Lewis’ devilish satire focuses on the principalities and powers that seduce our minds and hearts, The Great Divorce puts flesh on the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us heavenward.
In order to recreate Lewis’ abstract allegory, McLean’s creative team utilized cutting-edge videography and set design. Three actors—Joel Rainwater, Tom Beckett, and Christa Scott-Reed—share the narrator’s role and do a fantastic job transforming into more than a dozen different characters with simple, yet effective costume changes and a variety of accents ranging from the twang of a cynical carpetbagger to George MacDonald’s Highland brogue.
Though the plot was condensed to keep the story moving, the play follows the book almost verbatim. It is consequently dialogue heavy. This could easily have bored the audience, but Lewis’ wry humor was paced perfectly throughout, lightening the mood just enough for the mind to absorb the story’s deep theological truths.
While some may quibble with the directorial edits or the use of the word d---n (most of which is straight from the book), it’s hard to argue with McLean’s vision to offer world-class theater that “engages the imagination and stimulates the intellect” from a Christian worldview.
“The [secular] entertainment bar is very, very high,” McLean said. “If you don’t meet it, you’re immediately dismissed. Christians don’t want their faith in that category. They’re looking for something that will express their faith in an appealing, multilayered, convincing, and imaginative way.”
McLean accomplishes that by finding the best actors, designers, and producers in the country and uniting them under a “thoroughly Christian aesthetic.” Not only does this accomplish the goal of creating outstanding art, it builds a platform of mutual respect in an industry that simultaneously mocks and dismisses orthodox Christianity.
While The Great Divorce is traveling the country, eventually hitting the bigger markets like L.A., Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago, McLean’s creative team will be working on a new project, tentatively called Luther on Trial, which examines the lightning-rod reformer from various perspectives.
It’s a look at the positive and negative aspects of Luther’s legacy—the magnificent solas, but also the fact that he splintered the church, opened the door for secularism, and paved the way for anti-Semitism, McLean said. “[It’s] kind of a ‘what hath Luther wrought?’”
You may not care for his subject choice, but McLean knows that art leads cultural change, and to have a redemptive impact in the marketplace of ideas, he has to tell grand stories and ask big questions. The stakes are too high not to.
“Look at the arc of history and at what was considered absolutely unacceptable 30 years ago and what is commonplace now,” McLean said. How did that happen? “The arts led the way because it captured the imagination.”
McLean said that in recent history the church has not supported the arts, discouraging their youth from careers in theater, music, writing, and the visual arts. “Our best minds don’t go into the arts, whereas in the secular world, the best liberal minds go into the arts and the media. I don’t think [people in the church] understand the impact,” he said.
Nevertheless, McLean sees change happening and is hopeful. “There are a lot of thoughtful Christians that want a Christian worldview—a Christian voice—in the arts that is multilayered, that is appealing, that shows the length and breadth of what Christianity is.”
The trick is to spend less energy critiquing culture and more energy creating it. “We have a lot of culture critics,” McLean said. “We need culture makers.”