Ringwald’s ‘Let The Right One In’ based on Lindqvist’s original novel
FERNDALE, Mich.–Eli (Tiaja Sabrie), a central figure in The Ringwald Theatre’s latest production, Let the Right One In, explains in one scene that she’s not young, not old, not a boy, not a girl.
“I’m nothing,” she says.
While this may be indeed be true for the character, because Eli’s something akin to a vampire – spoiler alerts about this seem unnecessary, since the preceding 2008 Swedish film of the same name was an acclaimed cult hit – the acknowledgment nonetheless presents a challenge for audiences.
Why? Because although it becomes clear what emotionless, world-worn Eli is after, and you feel baseline sympathy for her existential imprisonment, she ultimately seems an elusive blank in human terms.
Plus, audience members may experience an initially awkward disconnect if they haven’t seen the movie or read John Ajvide Lindqvist’s original novel. For although the characters are played by adult actors, the story is about an unconventional friendship that develops between a regularly bullied twelve year old (Oskar, played by Shane Nelson) and eternally pubescent Eli.
Admittedly, I may not have been mentally firing on all cylinders opening night, but it took me a good while to determine that the characters were much, much younger than the actors playing them, and this caused some distracting moments of disjuncture. (“For a teenage boy, he seems bizarrely uninterested in a sheet-wrapped naked girl joining him in bed,” I thought at one point. I’m slow sometimes.)
The play, adapted by Jack Thorne, begins with a dual structure: we see an older, bundled up man (Hakan, played by Joel Mitchell) commit gruesome violence against an unsuspecting stranger in the woods, then collect his blood; and we watch Oskar get taunted and abused by schoolmates Mickey (Sean Ceglarek) and ringleader Jonny (Mike Suchyta) in a locker room.
When news of the brutal murder in the woods spreads, locals are warned to be cautious, and Oskar’s emotionally fragile, possibly alcoholic mom (Sarah Burcon) warns her son to stay close to home; but in the nearby courtyard, Oskar meets new neighbor Eli, whose initial, deadpan pronouncement, “We can’t be friends,” has the feel of an already-forged chain.
Let the Right One In earns points for being an original, new spin on the vampire legend, set in a foreign country, in an era (the ‘80s) still visible in our rearview mirror; and its occasional, inevitable forays into horror are generally quite well-executed on the Ringwald’s stage. But like Eli, I found myself emotionally numb, never feeling all that invested in the characters.
This is in part because they’re rather one-note. Oskar’s a kid who’s constantly picked on by his peers; his divorced parents are self-absorbed; the bullies are classic bullies; the gym teacher (Artun Kircali) is an encouraging good guy willing to lend an ear; etc. But the exception to this series of archetypes is Hakan, the older man who lives with Eli and commits the town’s murders. Though everyone’s initially led to believe he Eli’s father, we gradually come to understand that he was likely the last young man to find himself in Oskar’s position; he’s just continued to age as Eli remains young.
Mitchell masterfully imbues Hakan with a fierce intensity – something this conflicted but fiercely loyal man must possess to keep committing acts of horrific violence. But Hakan is also, in other moments, achingly vulnerable with Eli, whom he worships and will stop at nothing to satisfy and protect. (With an assist from costume designer Vince Kelley, Mitchell also nails the creepy look of a deliberately nondescript guy who’s constantly trying to blend into the scenery.) Sabrie, meanwhile, drily conveys the sublime boredom of living forever, as well as Eli’s frighteningly primal hunger. For the physical demands of playing Eli – voraciously attacking victims, having a kind of seizure upon entering a room uninvited, instantly dropping to the ground when drops of blood fall there – are substantial, and these moments are among the highlights of Sabrie’s performance. Finally, Nelson makes Oskar’s youthful awkwardness, loneliness, and goofiness palpable, so that when he’s faced with the biggest decision of his life, it feels both surprising and inevitable.
Director Brandy Joe Plambeck’s Let the Right One In at the Ringwald (running time, two hours) doesn’t wallow in gore, but instead keeps its focus on storytelling. Casey Hibbert’s set design consists of a few lockers, a bench, and a versatile piece that stands in for playground equipment, the interior of side-by-side apartments, the police station, a hospital bed, etc. Plambeck’s lighting and sound design underscore the menacing, suspenseful tone of the play, while Sydney Lepora’s fight choreography gives the play’s physical action more, well, punch.
Too often, however, I found myself pulled out of the narrative when specific moments didn’t seem to add up, particularly as the play approached its (admittedly haunting and cool) final scene. So, although there were things I certainly admired about Let the Right One In, I ultimately found it to be a play – excuse the pun – that I could never quite sink my teeth into.