Few films conjure up the nightmarish movie memories that"The Exorcist"does.
William Friedkin's 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty's bestselling novel famously spurred reports of screaming, fainting and even moviegoers running from theaters as 12-year-old Regan MacNeil, possessed by an ancient, powerful evil, spat out obscenities and ugly rivers of dark green bile. Religious leaders condemned the movie as sacrilegious; some cautioned that watching the film and its head-spinning imagery would endanger the soul.
Nearly four decades later, "The Exorcist" is being resurrected for the stage in a stripped-down production that opens Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse.
Director John Doyle, the Scottish theater veteran known for his Tony Award-winning 2005 Broadway revival of "Sweeney Todd," acknowledges the movie's legacy, but he insists that he's not simply trying to put the film on stage.
"We can't do what the movie did," said Doyle, sitting inside the Geffen on a recent morning. "We're having to find a theatrical storytelling language that helps us — and hopefully the audience — to find a way of inhabiting the world of the play and the novel that doesn't use the imagery that is now so iconic to people."
Written by John Pielmeier ("Agnes of God"), the play still tells the story of an ancient demon that invades the body of a young girl in the Georgetown neighborhood ofWashington, D.C., and as in the film, a doubting Catholic priest must test the limits of his faith in a desperate attempt to save her soul.
Rather than the horrors Regan undergoes while in the grips of her possession, the script plays up the philosophical conversations between the demon and Father Damien, who finds himself in spiritual crisis after the death of his mother.
Speaking by phone, Pielmeier said the larger themes in the story dovetailed with his own preoccupations: "'The Exorcist' just seemed to fit right into the kinds of things I like to write — a tortured little girl surrounded by people in crisis of faith. I think it's a kind of perfect bookend to 'Agnes of God' in a way."
The Garrison, N.Y.-based playwright returned to Blatty's novel, not the screenplay, as the source material for the play, meeting with the author in his Maryland home in early 2008 to obtain his blessing for a theatrical adaptation and to secure the rights for the play.
Pielmeier, whose theatrical résumé includes "Courage," about J.M. Barrie, and the comedy "The Classics Professor," began working on a draft in November of that year, with an eye toward employing the same kind of limited staging he used for 1979's "Agnes of God," about a young nun accused of murdering her own infant.
The spare approach appealed to Doyle, who is known for his minimalist aesthetic. Pielmeier and Doyle met roughly a year and a half ago, and the pair workshopped the play for several weeks last fall in the basement rehearsal space of the American Church in London. Doyle suggested paring back the script from two acts to just one, and some other small trims and adjustments were made.
The whole time, Doyle says he was exploring the best way to tell the story in a theatrical setting and searching for an answer to one specific question: "How do you put the demonic on the stage?"
"I've chosen to do it through ritual, through the image that the devil could be in us all, trying to find a way that's classy," Doyle said. "I would like for the audience to use its imagination."
In the end, he opted to rely on religious iconography, innovative sound design, music and "very few tricks" for the production, which began previews last week. (Illusionist Teller of Penn & Teller was brought in to construct the sleights of hand that were required.)
"It mustn't go Hammer House of Horror," Doyle cautioned, "but it can go strange."
In casting 23-year-old UCLA grad Emily Yetter as Regan, Doyle and Pielmeier hoped to eliminate a distraction for theatergoers who might have a difficult time watching a child utter profane and potentially offensive dialogue.
"We didn't want to have an audience step back from the play to say, 'Oh, how can her parents let her do this?' Or 'How can this 10-year-old girl say these words?'" Pielmeier explained.
"Nobody wants to watch an actual child go through what Regan goes through on stage, especially eight times a week," added Yetter.
She was seated next to Brooke Shields, who stars in "The Exorcist" as Regan's mother Chris, a self-involved actress guarding a dark secret about her past that comes to light after her daughter becomes possessed. Neither Yetter nor Shields has seen Friedkin's film in its entirety — "I was too scared," Shields confessed — but both said the strength of Pielmeier's script helped them overcome any initial trepidation.
(The nine-member cast also includes David Wilson Barnes as Father Damien and Richard Chamberlain as Father Merrin, the character Max Von Sydow played in the film.)
Midway through rehearsals, the actresses said the process had been rewarding but exhausting. "It's like the whole play has an isometric hold on your psyche," Shields said. "I can dance four or five hours a day in rehearsal and I've not been this tired."
Part of the work, Doyle chimed in, lies in "shattering a whole set of preconceptions" that people bring with them to the theater.
Indeed, the way "The Exorcist" continues to enjoy such a provocative reputation is, in many ways, something of a liability for his production, which aims to explore deeper existential questions about how to hold on to hope in a world beset by evil and makes reference to the very real horrors of Auschwitz, Cambodia and Somalia.
The stakes are high — if it works, the play ultimately could move to Broadway with actor Malcolm McDowell reportedly set to take over for Chamberlain.
But, Doyle said, laughing, "It might not work."
Pielmeier, however, is optimistic that his play will reach fans of Blatty's work and newcomers to the material. The mere fact that the novel and the film have endured in the collective cultural memory for so long signals to him an appetite to see "The Exorcist" retold once more.
"I think that the story is seminal to our hearts and souls," Pielmeier said. "I think that is why it has continued to be something of a phenomenon ever since it was first introduced. It's something that people just don't forget. I don't think it's because it scared them. I think it's because it touches some part in people that is much deeper than many of the things out there."