WILMINGTON — When Big Dawg Productions opened “Let the Right One In” Thursday night at Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater, it was the first time local actor and director Jason Aycock had a chance to work with blood elements.
“I really dig it,” he said.
“At first glance, it seems impossible to tell the story on stage because of all the effects that can occur in film that can’t be replicated on stage, especially in a smaller venue,” Big Dawg’s artistic director Steve Vernon said. “But the story of the relationships of the characters is what is really disturbing.”
Based on the 2004 Swedish novel, 2008 movie and 2010 American remake, “Let the Right One In” became a play in 2013 (it’s slated to go into production as a Showtime series in 2022). The vampiric love story follows the coming-of-age of two teenagers in a world that’s unforgiving, sometimes horrific, even full of violence and murder.
The story centers on Oskar, who suffers from isolation and is bullied by his classmates often. He finds a kindred spirit and companionship in the girl next door, Eli, who is quite different from most her age. She doesn’t go to school, stays locked inside her apartment all day, and only emerges at night. Yet, Eli becomes Oskar’s biggest confidant, encouraging him to take up for himself and stepping in to help when she can.
Eli’s father, Hakan, must look after his daughter’s special circumstances — specifically, culling human blood she can feed on, since Eli is a vampire.
“There are a few characters that don’t make it out alive,” Vernon said of the script.
The production has been on the books for Big Dawg since 2019, when Vernon first reached out to Aycock to direct. Aycock’s past experience in the horror genre is relegated to just musical theater: “Sweeney Todd,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Rocky Horror Show.” Yet, Vernon said it worked in his favor: “Jason was my first choice, as I felt the show needed someone who understood movement.”
Then the pandemic hit, putting everything in a holding pattern. A lot has shifted since.
“It’s been a tough year-and-a-half for everyone,” Vernon said. “A lot of actors that we’ve seen on Wilmington stages in the past have had to reprioritize or have had to move on. Sadly, some have passed.”
It took two rounds of auditions to fill out the roles. The cast ranges in age, from teens to twenty- and sixty-somethings. Out of 11 actors, Vernon said only three have ever worked with Big Dawg.
“It’s exciting to have new blood, all puns intended,” he said.
“The play has so much that the movie is known for, but really pulls some great character moments from the book,” Aycock explained.
It taps into the depths of solitude, and what happens when humans are discarded and disconnected from others. Vernon admitted the relationships among the characters are the most disturbing part of the show, threading a quintessential “eeriness” throughout each scene.
“A lot of questions are asked of the audience,” Vernon said. “[W]ho are the real monsters in our world? When it comes down to it, the story is a very human one, rich with emotion. That’s what theatre is all about.”
Grace Carlyle Berry takes on the role of Eli, and Cooper Herrett plays her love interest, Oskar. Cole Marquis performs as Eli’s father, Hakan, while eight other actors make up townspeople, parents, bullies, “and maybe a surprise here and there,” Aycock detailed.
“Grace does a wonderful job capturing the centuries pent up within this young feminine vampire,” he explained. “For such a sweet kid, [Cooper] really embodies Oskar’s loneliness and longing for connection.”
It’s 16-year-old Herrett’s first lead role. Despite the pressure, the Cape Fear Academy student said tapping into Oskar’s many nuanced moments as a battered boy, suffering through mental and physical ramifications, has been an unmatched acting opportunity, rife with growth.
“I love this story’s ability to elicit empathy and sympathy for all the characters, even the most disturbing or troublesome ones,” Herrett said. “This delicate achievement is one of the most powerful aspects of the show.
The characters that mistreat Oskar have their own set of circumstances that lead them to his torment — alcoholism, a brutal family life, internalized fears.
Aycock said, despite the graphic nature of the story, a bullying scene still causes as much hair-raising fright. “It’s a testament to the timelessness of the script that a bully scene would have so much dark weight to it, but I guess it’s also an occurrence that hasn’t changed much over the years.”
“I personally think the scariest element of this story is not even one of the scares, but the complete isolation and abandonment that Oskar suffers throughout the show,” said Berry, who plays Oskar’s love interest. “He feels the safest person in his life is a deadly vampire. That’s real horror.”
The supernatural element of Eli creates layered mystique on stage, according to Berry. She said part of the 200-year-old vampire’s appeal is that her backstory is never really divulged to the audience.
“The script doesn’t feel the need to over-explain,” she said and added the audience will be transfixed by her character’s intentions and the relationship she builds with Oskar: “Is she genuinely falling in love, or is she collecting her next prey?”
Marquis as Eli’s dad, Harkan — played with “devotion and vulnerability,” Aycock said — is pulling double duty in the show. The actor also oversaw the play’s lighting design to create the temperamental vibe, illuminating beautiful, frightful and seclusive moments. Paired with Terry Collins’ set design of a Birch forest, the idea is to transport the audience as if they’re stranded in the woods; Donna Troy’s paintings build out all other scenes.
“I think we manage to create some really solid scare moments,” Aycock added, “and I hope that’s due to the expectation of what’s going to happen and then what actually happens.”
Still, the cast and crew said the special effects never wane.
“The first time we tested a bloody moment that happens early on in the show was both terrifying and exhilarating,” Berry said. “All of us who were watching screamed. It was amazing.”
Big Dawg will stage “Let the Right One In” Thursdays through Sundays, through Oct. 31. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. except on Sundays, 3 p.m. Tickets are $32; the show features adult language and strobe lighting.
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