C. S. Lewis is arguably the most important Christian writer of the 20th century. His large number of works include The Chronicles of Narnia, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters, and his influence on modern Christian thought is incalculable. But for much of his early life, Lewis was a decided atheist.
In C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert, the newest production from Fellowship for Performing Arts, Lewis’ early atheism and conversion to Christianity take center stage. Written and performed by Max McLean, who also co-directs the play with Ken Denison, The Most Reluctant Convert chronicles Lewis’ journey toward belief: beginning in his early childhood and closing when he takes Communion at age 33, when Lewis firmly declares: “I now believe.”
The play takes place in Lewis’ Study at Magdalen College in Oxford, where he served as an English tutor for many years. The year is 1950, just before the publication of Lewis’ first Narnian story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Taking cues from recordings of Lewis’ voice and accounts of his behavior, McLean convincingly and endearingly enacts the Oxford don as he tells the audience about his stubborn struggle to keep God out of his life, and his extreme reluctance to accept the Christian faith. Of his eventual defeat, Lewis says: “I [was] perhaps, the most… reluctant convert in all of England.”
Far from what you might expect in a play with only one character and setting, The Most Reluctant Convert doesn’t feel limited in its action. Thanks in part to changing image projections, and in part to McLean’s acting abilities, the story moves successfully from Lewis’ childhood home in Ireland, to the Surrey countryside, the WWI trenches, and the University of Oxford. The dialogue is also offset by brief pauses, lighting changes, and musical interludes. In addition, McLean makes use of the whole stage: sitting at Lewis’ desk, walking up and down the study, pouring a glass of wine, and settling in the armchair at center stage.
It’s a great credit to McLean and his artistic team that, in a play that’s really just one long monologue, the audience never gets bored or restless. That being said, audience members may find themselves briefly zoning out from time to time, and with a script largely drawn from Lewis’ own writings, it’s nearly impossible to catch everything that’s said. If viewers want more, though, they can go to the source material listed in the program notes. And no matter how many times the audience zones out, McLean always brings them back.
Hosted by the Acorn Theatre and Theatre Row, the play is a must-see for fans of C. S. Lewis, and sure to interest and inspire both skeptics and believers alike. Whether you’re a Christian, an atheist, something in the middle, or something else entirely, The Most Reluctant Convert speaks to you where you are – much like C. S. Lewis himself.