Chilly con Carnage

Frozen probes the psyche of a serial-killing pedophile

Jan 26, 2005 at 4:00 am
Bryony Lavery's Frozen is a chilling drama that probes a world about which, mercifully, most of us know little: pedophilia. At its most ambitious, and at its most successful, Lavery's play penetrates "the Arctic frozen sea that is...the criminal brain." Yet before the evening (a tight, taut two hours) is over, the viewer is reminded that when circumstances compel, we are all capable of retreating to a frigid, ice-bound sanctuary in our own minds.

For much of the early evening, Frozen plays out like three one-character plays. First we come to know Nancy (Pamela Wiggins). Twenty years earlier, Nancy sent her ten-year-old daughter to Grandmother's house; the child never arrived. First the child is assumed to be a runaway, then the remains are found. As the years pass, Nancy registers seismic shifts in attitude, from maternal irritation to self-deception to denial to rage, and ultimately to rebirth and understanding. She personifies the play's visceral response to pedophilia.

Then there is Dr. Agnetha (Henny Russell), a clinical research psychologist who has spent much of her adult life objectively studying the behavior of violent criminals. But of course it's not enough for Agnetha to put forth the dispassionate, cerebral side of the play's triangle. Ever since Peter Shaffer created the role of the inwardly disturbed Dr. Dysart in Equus 30 years ago, the theater has been so rife with mind-wounded physicians as to shake the very foundations of the medical profession. Agnetha is the latest in a long line of life-starved psychologists.

Finally, and most compellingly, the third side of the triangle is Ralph (Arnie Burton), the serial killer. Ralph is hypnotic and frighteningly theatrical. He is the character who sweeps the viewer into uncharted territory.

Frozen pretty much adheres to a geometric formula: First, the monologues; in time, monologues make way for two-character scenes. Mathematics alone ensures us that by the end of the evening each actor will have shared the stage with the other two. But although the play's trajectory is inevitable, it never feels predictable, primarily because of Lavery's writing manner. Her script is composed in a kind of free verse. Though the dialogue doesn't sound like poetry when spoken by the actors, it has the laser-beam directness of poetry, the reassuring sense that not a word is wasted.

Last fall, long after its Broadway engagement had closed, Frozen was tainted by a charge of plagiarism: It would appear that Lavery borrowed some technical jargon for Dr. Agnetha. At the very least, the charge reaffirms the lifelessness of that character. Perhaps the playwright could have transmuted fact into her fiction more subtly, but this isn't plagiarism on the order of historian Stephen Ambrose purloining other historians' research and calling it his own. At any rate, the alleged pilfering is far less relevant to the current Studio Theatre production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis than is the sense that this mounting, directed by Harold Scott, seems to be at odds -- or at least out of sync -- with the text.

On the page the grieving Nancy is the most significant of the three characters; she certainly travels the furthest journey. But as portrayed here by Pamela Wiggins, Nancy does not dominate. It's difficult to determine how much she even grows. Perhaps a conscious decision was made to depict her as a simpleton, a quaint sort of British Everywoman. But too many key moments -- intricate lines like, "I think I am as near to being not alive anymore as I've ever been" -- elude her. It's as if Wiggins' delivery is determined to flatten out the dialogue rather than convey its singularity.

There's a spontaneous moment in Act One when Nancy has to push a bench offstage at the end of a scene. This has nothing to do with the play; they're just clearing the set. With the weight of the world heaped upon her frail shoulders, as Nancy plows into that bench suddenly she is a female Sisyphus; after she's gone, you half expect actress-and-bench to come rolling back onto the stage. They don't, but Wiggins' performance could benefit from more of that kind of take-charge presence, more of that weight.

Because the character balance is out of alignment, a production that should be concerned with the power of healing instead is dominated by the insidious Ralph. This is understandable: Evil incarnate is usually spellbinding. Arnie Burton's Ralph seizes the evening with the same seeming ease with which he seized Nancy's daughter. Ralph is a completely original creation; little surprise then that the audience is rapt whenever he is onstage. Once again, Lavery has relied on economy of language to create his character (listen for Ralph's reliance on the word "obviously"). At times Burton can be as immutable as Hannibal Lecter. But when under pressure, the actor's lips and cheeks begin to contort in subtly grotesque ways that make you think he's succumbing to a severe case of hives.

Ralph possesses that wonderfully theatrical capacity to shock. "The only thing I'm sorry about is that it's not legal," he tells Agnetha. "What's not legal?" she asks. As matter-of-factly as he if were telling her the time of day, Ralph replies, "Killing girls." Such electrifying moments make Frozen well worth one's time. But when the play ends, it's just possible that -- instead of still being caught up in its provocative content -- you'll find yourself puzzling over why you're not more emotionally drained than you are.