Los Angeles Theatre Review: The Exorcist (at the Geffen Playhouse)

In 1971, William Peter Blatty came out with The Exorcist, a novel inspired by a real-life event from the 1940s. The book was a bestseller and Hollywood immediately pounced on the property releasing the film version only two years later. William Friedkin’s chiller scared the Hell out of a nation and was a huge hit (one of the highest grossers of the 1970s), scoring multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The story dealt with a crisis of faith and the unreliability of science to explain spiritual phenomenon. John Pielmeier, the playwright who adapted the book for the stage, has had experience in dealing with religious myths and the unexplainable. He adapted his own play for the feature length film Agnes of God back in 1985, which garnered him an AMPAS nod. His Exorcist steers as far away from the film as possible, but there is only so much embellishment of smaller details in the book which can produce anything new or surprising content-wise. The play treads through the plot-points while fully absorbed in the theological struggles of the characters. Chris MacNeil (Brooke Shields, with her amazing bone structure and cascading brunette locks) is a mother who searches for answers to save her girl Regan (Emily Yetter) whose body is inhabited by a demon. Exhausted of options, she’s lead to Father Damien Karras (David Wilson Barnes), who wrestles with his own conscience, having allowed his mother to die lonely and improperly attended. Tony-winner John Doyle provides sobering direction for the clerical figure and mother so helpless in their own plights, most emotions are quite inaccessible. Many of the conversations take place in a clinical fashion across almost the entire length of the Geffen stage. Also in the cast is Richard Chamberlain, who performs the role of Father Merrin in the finale, after spending the entire production reminding the audience through several asides about the likely existence of the devil. As well, Harry Groener plays the unexamined flamboyant film director Burke Dennings, in a role beefed up for the stage.

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