LOS ANGELES -- Forget the movie. This "Exorcist" is turning heads – by not turning heads.
"We're not going to throw up all over the audience," noted actor Richard Chamberlain while on a recent rehearsal break at the Geffen Playhouse in LA's Westwood Village.
Chamberlain is one of the stars of the Geffen's new stage adaptation of the 1971 William Peter Blatty novel about a girl who may be possessed by Satan, the girl's distraught mother, and the senior and junior priests charged to save the day.
The book was a phenomenon. And yet for many, its memory is overshadowed by the 1973 William Friedkin film, which provided visceral thrills aplenty, including Linda Blair's famous head-spinning scene.
The Geffen production, running through Aug. 12, reaches back to Blatty's decidedly more cerebral treatment: scaring up a serious discussion of psychology, faith, love and evil.
Little wonder bringing "The Exorcist" to the stage appealed to playwright John Pielmeier. He explored similar territory with his Broadway breakthrough, the 1982 hit "Agnes of God," about a psychologist at odds with a mother superior over a nun's claim she experienced a virgin birth.
"('The Exorcist') is very much the bookend to my writing career," noted Pielmeier. "If `Agnes' was the one end of it; this is toward the end of the other end."
There are also ties that bind "The Exorcist" to earlier works by the director, John Doyle, whose credits include daring revivals of two Stephen Sondheim favorites: "Company" and "Sweeney Todd."
"You're always going to get audience members who are wanting to get what they first saw," Doyle said of "Exorcist"-film fans who give the stage version a shot. "My job is to tell the story as if it's never been told before."
Beyond Chamberlain, the other well-known cast member is Brooke Shields, who plays the mother. While she has stage experience, it's as a replacement for leads in musicals.
Shields said "The Exorcist" returns her to her pubescent days, working with such revered directors as Louis Malle ("Pretty Baby") and Franco Zeffirelli ("Endless Love"). "And, basically, (with) Louis and Zeffirelli, I got spoiled," Shields admitted. "Everything has paled in comparison in between (then and working with Doyle), to be honest."
So is "The Exorcist" on stage heading to the Great White Way?
"You always want to do it on Broadway," said actor David Wilson Barnes, who portrays the younger priest. But he warned that such thoughts could be counterproductive, at least at this stage. "Because you start making it into a Broadway thing, as opposed to the thing that it wants to be," he explained. "And if the thing that it wants to be then becomes the Broadway thing, that's fantastic."