A Monster Calls
Anthony Aje in A Monster Calls at the Kennedy Center; Credit: Michael Harlan

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In a new ad that plays before movies at AMC theaters, Nicole Kidman breathlessly tells theatergoers about the magic of watching a movie in a theater instead of in the comfort of their own homes. The one-minute “pre-movie prayer” has been mocked and made into memes, both because it seems to be preaching to the choir of those who have already decided to return to the cinema, and because it’s stuffed with overbaked, melodramatic lines like “somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.”

But the thing is, Kidman is right: Heartbreak may be a tough sell for modern audiences, but it can also be a beautiful and cathartic part of a theatrical experience. A Monster Calls, currently playing at the Kennedy Center by way of London’s Old Vic, is an excellent example of how a play can break your heart and gently put the pieces back together in time for the final curtain call.

While there are some dark themes at play, Monster is, overall, a touching experience with a lot of soul. The titular monster (Keith Gilmore, but played by Paul Sockett on press night) haunts 13 year-old Conor (Anthony Aje) each night at 12:07, though he is unimpressed by the looming menace. Conor is focused more on the stress of school bullies, an absent father, and a mother growing sicker by the day from an illness that isn’t responding to medicine. The monster is also not a traditional horrific beast, red in tooth and claw, but is instead the manifestation of an ancient yew tree in Conor’s front yard. It’s brought to life on stage through snaking, hanging ropes that serve as the show’s primary props that, when bundled together and puppeteered by Sockett, serve as a convincing suggestion of a tall and ancient tree spirit. 

Clearly, imagination takes center stage in this production, where a stark, all-white set from designer Michael Vale hides several tricks to transform itself into settings as mundane as a school classroom or as otherworldly as a hellish dreamscape. (The best surprise hidden within the set reveals Seamas Carey and Luke Potter producing dreamy synth-infused music for the show’s live score). The adaptable set allows the monster to show Conor a series of three stories it claims to have witnessed in its lifetime, using allegory to shine a light on Conor’s day-to-day struggles. The overall message the monster aims to impart is that things are rarely black and white, good or evil—especially humans. For example, one story focuses on a priest who gives up his faith and convictions in a desperate attempt to save his dying daughters from disease. He is both righteous and a sinner, strong and weak, much like Conor’s father (both played with warm affection by Tom Lorcan), who loves his son but cannot be fully devoted to him in Conor’s darkest hours due to obligations to his new family in America. 

Monster, which revels in the power of storytelling, works because it is itself an expertly crafted story. The source novel from Patrick Ness is rife with profound quotes and realizations that have been expertly preserved by co-adaptors Adam Peck and director Sally Cookson. The fantastical elements layered on top of a relatable human experience come together to tell a modern fable filled with care and heart. As the final curtain approaches and a seemingly inevitable tragic conclusion plays out, the play leans into one of its core ideas—that by facing our tragedies honestly and openly, we can achieve catharsis and live with our troubles instead of trying to sweep them away. 

It’s a shame that facing our tragedies is, in fact, very difficult to do, which makes this story a tough sell for some. That was the case when the novel was adapted into a 2016 movie with strong critical and audience reviews but an anemic performance at the box office. Those who are willing to come to the theater for a beautiful but heartbreaking tale will be well-rewarded—and would do well to pack a few tissues.

Anthony Aje in A Monster Calls at the Kennedy Center; by Michael Harlan

A Monster Calls, based on the novel by Patrick Ness, adapted by Sally Cookson and Adam Peck, and directed by Cookson, plays at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, through June 12. kennedy-center.org. $35–$139.