A Powerful Exorcist Opens at Geffen Playhouse

I wrestle with my demons every day, so I was not sure that I wanted to see other people wrestling with theirs on stage -- but my curiosity got the better of me and I attended the world-premiere of the new play, The Exorcist, at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse Wednesday evening. And I was rewarded with 95 minutes of superb, powerful drama, which riveted me and a packed house. I am sure that all of us hold a memory in our heads of the Billy Friedkin '73 film of the same story, a possessed child spewing filth and heads turning completely around, adapted from William Peter Blatty's 1971 book. But a hugely talented playwright, John Pielmeier, and a brilliant director, John Doyle, went back to the original book and plumbed it for depths the film had not approached. Aided by an amazing cast headed by Richard Chamberlain and Brooke Shields, the evening was a success from the beginning to the spiritually uplifting ending.

Richard Chamberlai and Brooke Shields star in the new production.

Although I admit to being a skeptic when it comes to organized religions, I was immediately captured by Chamberlain, as veteran 'Exorcist priest' Father Merrin, when he addressed the audience about the presence of the devil in all of us. As the Geffen's artistic director, Randall Arney, said:

What makes The Exorcist such a fundamentally frightening story is that this devil is intimately specific -- each character is haunted by the individual things for which they harbor the most guilt. Despair allows the devil in, and he takes up residence in the innocence of a child, as even men of conviction are pushed to examine the depths of their shortcomings.

Emily Yetter plays the possessed girl, and Harry Groener plays the film director.

I remember being enthralled by the playwright's previous '82 work, Agnes of God, which also took up the question of faith in today 's complex world. It dealt with a psychiatrist and a Mother Superior sparring about the 'immaculate conception' of a young nun accused of killing her child. And I saw the director's skilled restaging of Sweeney Todd, when the cast played musical instruments while performing their roles.

Pielmeier told writer Amy Levinson that he first heard of the project five years ago when two producers called him to say they had the stage rights to the Blatty novel. They set up a meeting between the playwright and Blatty but then could not secure the rights. However, he met with the author and the latter was so impressed by John's approach that he gave him the rights to stage the work himself.

"I was not interested in reproducing the film on stage," said Pielmeier. " I wanted to do it with a very small cast. I wanted to do it with minimal, if any special effects. And I very much wanted the demon to be a presence in the play, not a voice coming out of a child."

He succeeded in all of this, although the cast of nine is a bit larger than originally envisioned, and they are on stage throughout most of the action. The coup of casting Richard Chamberlain and Brooke Shields brought to it a star presence, which will help the proceeding in its initial stages, but they are superb in their characterizations. (Many years ago, brother Stan and I did the merchandising for Chamberlain's Dr. Kildare, so I have a warm spot in my heart for him. And Shields will always be the beautiful child of Blue Lagoon to me.) Director Doyle came aboard about a year and a half ago, and worked with the writer to polish the work. They did a workshop reading of the play in London, and the director was insistent it be done without an intermission. (Thank God. It was too intense to spend 20 minutes in a lobby waiting for the second half.)

In Blatty's book there is passing reference to the alcoholic movie director's early indoctrination as a priest, and that Chris, the mother/actress, had a child before daughter Regan. He latched on to these and made them integral parts of the play, setting it on a movie set in Georgetown where she is filming a light 'Doris Day-like comedy. (Interestingly enough, the iconoclast Blatty is suing his alma mater, Georgetown University, in a church court to make it stop calling itself a Roman Catholic university. Rubbish.) Here, the playwright is presenting the unsettling battles of good versus evil, faith versus fact, and ego versus ethos, into a sophisticated, suspenseful drama.

Father Merrin prays over the girl, Regan

The cast is first-rate, with Broadway actor David Wilson Barnes as the troubled young priest, Father Damien. Geffen alumni Harry Groener is perfect as the film director Burke Dennings, while the young possessed daughter Regan is played by 23-year-old UCLA drama graduate Emily Yetter. (She looks 10 or 12 on stage.) I was intrigued that Teller, the quiet half of the world-famous duo Penn and Teller, was listed as a creative consultant. I think I know which 'illusion' he fathered.)

This modern-day horror story is so fascinating that I was engaged for an hour or two with my date about the essence of the conflict in faith faced by the older priest in light of the disillusionment of the younger priest. (I would wager he never faced such an illness when playing Dr. Kildare.) The script plays up the philosophical discussions (if you can call them that) between the devilish evil spirit inhabiting the body of the young girl and the young priest anguishing over the death of his mother.

Doyle is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "I was searching for the best way to put the demonic on stage, and I've chosen to do it through ritual, through the image that the devil could be in all of us. I want the audience to use its imagination." Yes, Mr. Doyle, you sure succeeded. I wrestled all night and into today with the question of how to retain hope in a world beset by evil. Fortunately, I don't think my devil has won... yet.

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