At a certain point in life, a person feels that he has sorted out his religious beliefs. The aim of John Pielmeier's stage adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel The Exorcist seems to be to create a bit of a doubt along the way, a speed bump to slow you down and make you actually think.
But the question the Geffen's gorgeously designed new production likely didn't intend to raise is why adapt a novel into a stage play when it's already been adapted into one of the most famous films of all time?
Pielmeier probably struggled with that question, too, which might be why he decided to differentiate the play from the film by taking the religious grappling so seriously. “For anyone who doubts the existence of the devil, as I once did, I have three words: Auschwitz. Cambodia. Somalia,” Richard Chamberlain as Father Merrin somberly intones in his opening monologue.
No spinning heads here, folks, but please do expect some tortured souls reciting lines that, leaving the mouths of less accomplished actors, would unintentionally cause chuckles.
If you have any religious background, the metaphors are clear: The omniscient Merrin who floats downstage to offer history and moral lessons and then retreats to sit on a kind of throne, is God (oh, that God were as gentle and soothing as Chamberlain). Psychiatrist priest Damien Karras (the excellent, wry David Wilson Barnes), wracked with doubts and tempted by the demon possessing the child, is Jesus Christ. If all you know is that Christ supposedly sacrificed his life on a cross in order to save the lives of others, well, by the final scene, you'll understand everything just fine.
It's all a little too obvious, and the story seems so much less compelling — and thrilling — than you recall. Still, kudos to Emily Yetter for not chewing the scenery as the possessed Regan; the same can't be said for Brooke Shields as her mother.
There is a palpable chill in the Geffen, but the source isn't the script so much as the stunning production details and director John Doyle's staging. Scott Pask's set — a wrought-iron gate behind which the entire cast sits for the duration of the play, and a giant cross suspended over the stage — implies the separation of God and man and keeps the demons in shadows so their hissing is disorienting.
Lighting design by Jane Cox is transcendent, her pools of light isolating characters from each other and exacerbating the sense of the loneliness of the human experience. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design, which layers echoey whispers on top of moans on top of John Tavener's eerie score, sends more shivers down the spine than any line of dialogue.
Perhaps it's more apt that what causes the biggest impact here isn't what's said but what's felt. A spiritual battle may be playing out between heaven and hell, but you don't believe it's happening just because someone says so — or even because a little girl begins spewing bizarre utterances. That tug in your gut is far more trustworthy.
THE EXORCIST | Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Aug. 12 | (310) 208-5454 | geffenplayhouse.com