Review | In ‘A Monster Calls,’ a boy learns the ropes of anguish and change

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Rooms come alive. A towering yew tree walks and talks. A nightmare manifests as a menacing, muttering crowd. A powerhouse ensemble conjures these eerie moments in “A Monster Calls,” the British stage adaptation of Patrick Ness’s novel, now in its U.S. premiere run at the Kennedy Center. It’s a collective feat that’s all the more striking because it sculpts such an intimate personal story: a young boy’s aching experience of fear, isolation and grief.

That boy is Conor (Anthony Aje), who initially seems to be coping with his parents’ split and the bullying he gets at school. But when his Mum (Bridgette Amofah) becomes seriously ill, his stoicism thins. And then he begins to receive spooky visits from a walking, talking yew tree (at the reviewed performance, Paul Sockett; the role is usually played by Keith Gilmore), who tells twisty fables and pries after Conor’s most terrible secret.

In telling this story, director Sally Cookson employs a powerful reveal-the-theatrical-workings approach. When not central to a scene, the actors often sit in chairs flanking the otherwise bare stage. Video occasionally washes the white backdrop, but it’s aptly abstract, evoking, rather than depicting, Conor’s nightmare and other sights. (Dick Straker designed the video; Aideen Malone, the lighting. Cookson and Adam Peck adapted the novel.)

In lieu of realistic sets, numerous ropes dangle from above, at first suggesting cordage for rigging scenery, but later becoming elements that the ensemble pulls and twines to suggest the yew tree’s trunks and branches, or acrobatically climbs or hangs from, intensifying an atmosphere of precariousness. The ensemble brings Conor’s reality to life in other ways, too: holding and handing over objects like kitchen utensils — or, in one memorable sequence, slyly scattering his garments, as if to make the act of getting dressed especially difficult. The overall impression is of a world alive in a subversive and meddlesome manner, correlating with Conor’s anguished sense of powerlessness.

In tune with that idea, Aje offers a heart-rending depiction of a child trying to tough his way through pain. The other performances are expert, too, including Anita Reynolds’s vivid turn as Conor’s prickly Grandma. Adding emotional intensity is composer Benji Bower’s stirring musical underscoring, which ranges from shivery reverb-laden strings to fast-paced percussion and electro sounds. (Musicians Seamas Carey and Luke Potter are often visible in an alcove inset in the backdrop.)

Clocking in at 2½ hours, the Olivier Award-winning production is not a particularly succinct bit of storytelling. But the ingenuity of its staging will impress theater aficionados, and everyone will be alive to its imaginatively expressed insight into how people cope with change and loss.

A Monster Calls, directed by Sally Cookson; adapted by Cookson and Adam Peck from Patrick Ness’s novel, inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd; devised by the original company; remount director, Felix Hayes; set designer, Michael Vale; costumes, Katie Sykes; sound, Mike Beer; movement director, Dan Canham; aerial director, Matt Costain. With Greg Bernstein, Nathaniel Christian, Eleanor Kane, Tom Lorcan, Sarah Quist and others. Two and a half hours. An Old Vic production in association with Bristol Old Vic. Recommended for age 10 and up. Tickets: $35-$139. Through June 12 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

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