The Most Reluctant Convert: For Those Already Converted

C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert, written and performed by Max McLean, is a dense, honest play detailing the conversion of Clive Staples Lewis from stark atheism to an embrace of Christianity.

Together, the technical elements and creative visions of McLean and Ken Denison (co-directors) result in an uplifting and informative 80-minute look into the spiritual life of C.S. Lewis. However, because the play is not a complete biography and involves so much theology, it caters mainly to an already Christian audience who are somewhat familiar with Lewis’s personage.

Based primarily on Lewis’s Collected Letters and Surprised by Joy, the entire play is a monologue told from the point of view of Lewis (McLean).

The Most Reluctant Convert revolves around Lewis’s search for joy, beginning with his mother’s death in 1908 and concluding with his first genuine Communion two decades later. It is adapted largely from his own writings to provide a vulnerable and candid look at his hardheartedness early in life and his attempts to fulfil his spiritual cravings with materialism, intellectualism, and even the occult.  

McLean, as Lewis, sits in a cushioned armchair at center stage and puffs on his pipe. He speaks to the audience frankly, as if each member is a personal confidant, and confesses his resentment of God’s involvement in his life.

As the title suggests, Lewis was a stubborn atheist, and that was partially because he had been so disappointed by unanswered prayers. Most audience members can empathize with his frustration, hurting for him when he described his anger and sharing his triumph when he found joy at last.

Lewis’s theology is so well integrated into the script that McLean can deliver weighty material naturally; informing the audience without preaching. He looks comfortable onstage, physically emulating Lewis and delivering humorous lines in an understated tone.

The stage is set to resemble Lewis’s Oxford study. Richly decorated by Kelly James Tighe with charming, period-appropriate artifacts, McLean looks right at home in his old-fashioned suit (designed by Michael Bevins) among the stacks of old books and antique furniture.

Though Lewis is the only character present onstage, McLean occasionally imitates the Irish lilt of Lewis’s father or the Scottish accent of his tutor when narrating their impact on his philosophical development.

However, while his dialect coach Claudia Hill-Sparks teased several foreign accents from his default British, McLean’s delivery of most dialogue does not match Lewis’s measured drawl.

McLean’s acting is engaging to watch because he is animated, makes use of the well-furnished stage, and keep up the pace of the dialogue. Additionally, there are no disruptive set changes. A brief dimming of the lights and music signal scene transitions, along with changing projections on the backdrop that depict locations frequented by Lewis.

While Geoffrey D. Fishburn’s lighting design enhances the scenes by mimicking blue moonlight streaming through a window or lamps illuminating the study from within, Rocco DiSanti’s projections are slightly grainy and not photorealistic, which detract from the rest of the tangible, authentic scenery.

Resources available for purchase in lobby supplemented the content of the show, but on its own, The Most Reluctant Convert is unlikely to impress or convert many non-Christians. As evident in Lewis’s life, conversion is a lengthy and individual process that can be catalyzed by media but requires the work of the Holy Spirit.

Still, Christian audiences will be encouraged by the drastic change that can happen in even the most hardened of hearts, and they will be reminded that Christianity has no emergency exit; it requires the commitment of the heart and of the mind, unreservedly. As Lewis discovered, people naturally long for spiritual fulfilment, but lasting joy can only be found in dedication to Christ.

C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert is playing at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, New York) until May 21.

CultureAmanda Milone