In the bleak mid-winter of a small town in Sweden, there’s a boy who lives with his mother. He’s bullied at school. On the outside, he appears calm, non-threatening, even sheepish. But looks can be deceiving. On the inside, anger rages. When no one is around, he stabs repeatedly at a tree with his knife, imagining revenge on those who taunt him.
In the same apartment block, next door is another teenager. As far as anyone can tell, for those whoever see her, she’s a girl and she lives with her father. She’s never around during the day and doesn’t go to the local school. And curiously, considering the freezing temperatures and the snow on the ground, she’s never quite dressed for the season; she doesn’t even wear shoes. But she looks harmless enough. But, then again, as with the boy next door, looks can be deceiving.
For the final production of its 2018-19 season, ever since it was first announced, anticipation has built for Stray Cat Theatre’s stage adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire novel Let the Right One In, a title inspired by the 1992 Morrissey song Let the Right One Slip In. More than the book, most are presumably aware of the story through the excellent 2008 Swedish-language film, and to a degree through the 2010 American remake that shortened the title to simply Let Me In. That anticipation comes from wondering how can a live presentation recreate something that seemed so exclusively cinematic?
For the record, the film adaptation streamlined a lot of the heavy themes of the book. It centered less on alcoholism, pedophilia, genital mutilation and other topics explored with depth in the novel. Instead, it focused more on the relationship between the boy and his neighbor. Even the mysterious neighbor’s backstory that began more than 200 years earlier is left to something more ambiguous in the film. You never knew the details, but you got the idea. The play narrows events even further.
Scottish playwright Jack Thorne, who wrote the script for the National Theatre of Scotland, admits to never having seen the film or of reading the book until he was approached to write a stage adaptation. But by concentrating almost exclusively on the boy’s isolation, the school bullying, the dependent relationship with his divorced mother (Kathleen Berger), and the need of a real friend, the similarities between his situation and the teenager next door – she’s isolated, dependent on her father-figure ‘handler,’ and lonely – are made all the clearer. They need each other for reasons neither are initially aware.
“I can’t be friends with you, just so you know,” says Eli (a well-cast Brittney Watson) to the boy, Oskar (Nathaniel Smith; admirable work after stepping in at the production’s eleventh hour) after their first encounter in the children’s playground outside of the apartments at night. “Sorry, that’s just how it is.” But things will have to change for Eli, and she knows it.
When we first meet Eli’s older, father-figure, a man called Hakan (an effective, world-weary performance from Duane Daniels) he has kidnapped an innocent passer-by in the nearby woods, ready to slice the unfortunate victim’s throat and harvest blood for the girl. But he’s forced to run when others approach. “You’re older, weaker. It isn’t your fault,” a starving Eli tells the man. “I try to love you as much as I can,” Hakan tells her, as if aware that the passing of time no longer allows him to deliver in the way he once did. “I don’t think that’s good enough anymore,” the ageless teenager responds.
Scenes are short, almost sketchy, enacted on Aaron Sheckler’s excellent scenic design that incorporates tree limbs from the woods, a child’s swing, the metallic jungle-gym of a children’s playground, an elevated platform that can act as both Oskar’s bedroom and the forum from which the school principal (Scott Hyder) can make important announcements – “Evil needs silence,” he tells the school after another gruesome murder in the district. “Don’t be silent.” – and even, in case you were wondering how it could possibly be done, the school swimming pool that climaxes the story.
Because of the brevity of each moment, director Ron May moves his cast at a brisk pace leaving you to continually wonder what’s happening next. With solid support from all technical areas, notably Dallas Robert Nichols’ atmospheric lighting, Mary Townsend’s creative bloodletting, and Peter Bish’s sound design – when Eli’s stomach growls the sound is both funny and threatening – the play succeeds as a live presentation in ways you may never have imagined.
In its moments of silence the production is effectually creepy; remarkable considering that what you’re watching is not the reality that film recreates but the heightened reality of something that, by default of a live performance, can only remain artificial. Yet disbelief is suspended throughout. There’s even a moment of genuine shock that will surprise.
Whether it’s because of the set’s neutral tone that sits somewhere in that gray area between black and white, the snow around the base of the trees and the jungle-gym, or the theatre’s a/c unit turned down a few extra degrees, there’s a definite chill felt throughout both the play’s two acts, which is exactly what the piece requires. Stray Cat has created its own Bleak House.
Let The Right One In continues at Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe until May 4
Pictures Courtesy of John Groseclose