THE BAD SEEDby Maxwell Anderson
Richardson Theatre Centre
Director – Rachael Lindley
Set Design – LaMar Graham and Rachael Lindley
Sound Design – Rusty Harding and Richard Stephens, Jr.
Properties Design – Rachael Lindley
Costume Design – Rachael Lindley and Cast
Stage Manager—Maria Rodriguez
Rhoda Penmark – Cate Stuart
Col. Kenneth Penmark – Joseph Gerard
Christine Penmark – Lauren Gao
Monica Breedlove – Karen Jordan
Emory Wages – Steven Shaw
Leroy – David Lambert
Miss Fern – Charlotte Giles
Reginald Tasker – Rusty Harding
Mrs. Daigle – Lise Alexander
Mr. Daigle – Lloyd Webb
Richard Bravo – Frank Wyatt
Reviewed Performance: 10/3/2014
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Nature or nurture? This question has launched many heated debates among professionals and nonprofessionals alike for years. Pre-determined by genetics or learned by circumstances, or are some people, children in this case, just born evil? A tough question with no easy answers, both sides of the argument standing strong. Maxwell Anderson’s play, adapted from the novel of the same name by American writer William March, opened on Broadway December 8th, 1954 and after five months moved to a different venue until September 27th, 1955 for a run of 334 performances. Nancy Kelly won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play in the role of the mother with Patty McCormack and Eileen Heckart in the cast, all of whom repeated their roles in the 1956 Academy Award-nominated film directed by Mervyn Leroy. All three received Academy Award nominations for their performances.
A seemingly perfect little girl, Rhoda Penmark is able to charm her way into getting just about anything she wants except the highly coveted penmanship medal which instead is presented to a classmate who then goes missing on a school outing. Rhoda’s mother, Christine suspects that this and other events may not be what they seem, and it causes her to look into her own past and what she discovers about herself sets up the questions dramatized in this ‘50’s play.
This is a play that was performed quite often “back in the day” by many community theaters, and Richardson Theatre Centre, in this their twenty-fifth season, has put together a cast with several outstanding performances. TheTheatre Centre has taken a strip mall space and transformed it into an interesting mixture of black box, thrust and three-quarter staging place that works well for this production. Only three rows deep on all sides, a nice sense of intimacy is created to intensify the growing horror of the unfolding melodrama.
Of the outstanding performances, the first mention must go to Cate Stuart as Rhoda, the young girl referred to by the title. A character in the play says that she is soon to be thirteen-years-old and Miss Stuart, though a little older, pulls off the young characterization without resorting to clichéd gestures or vocal patterns. Her performance is pivotal in a role that would be difficult for even a much more experienced actress. Rhoda needs to be charming, sweet and above reproach, and also display the signs of a sociopath with no feelings for her reprehensible actions. She must be believable in both incarnations to make the play work, and for the most part Miss Stuart pulls it off admirably. Several times she exchanges what is taken to be a family tradition with her parents. One says, “What will you give me for a basket of kisses?”, answered by, “I’ll give you a basket of hugs!” The irony of this exchange pays off later in the play and grows more horrifying with each repetition as we begin to understand Rhoda’s true intentions.
Miss Stuart gives a little too much away in the first scene with her facial expressions when the other characters aren’t looking which spoils what should be a growing realization of the true nature of this creature. When she is “good” she is very, very good indeed, dropping curtsies and complimenting her elders and behaving with perfect manners. Miss Stuart’s smile is charming and you never doubt the other characters are fooled into believing her perfection. Her entire body language backs up that sweet smile and syrupy words. When she is “bad” she is very bad indeed with a complete change in her features and body posture that shows us Rhoda’s true self. Her extended “Give me those shoes!” scene with Leroy, the custodian, is frightening in the cold, calculated assurance Miss Stuart displays as Rhoda’s persona. There are times when her screams and reactions are over-the-top, but perhaps this is more a judgment call by the director than a character choice by the actor. In all, this young thespian gives an assured and polished performance.
In perhaps the showiest role of the evening, Lise Alexander plays the drunken mother of the missing boy who won the penmanship medal Rhoda coveted. Her two scenes are the highlight of the evening with Ms. Alexander playing an inebriated, frantic mother. She acts the drunk without stumbling or slurring her dialogue but with just enough adjustment in her walk, posture and almost flailing gestures to convince us of her condition. Ms. Alexander’s shifts between laughter and tears is handled so believably that I was completely involved with her character’s despair and felt pity and understanding while still being embarrassed by this poor woman grasping for any help she can find. Ms. Alexander’s speech and manner denote a person of lower social class, and though she plays the mother with a certain crassness, she manages to also give the poor woman a certain tragic dignity. Thanks to her talent, the entire performance reveals an inner life and history that bleed through the tears.
Karen Jordan plays Monica Breedlove, the owner of the apartment building where Rhoda lives with her family. Her stage presence and assurance help propel every scene she is in toward its intended purpose. Ms. Jordan makes Monica’s affection for Rhoda and constant praise appear genuine and heartfelt. She also almost manages to make the long speeches about Freud and psychiatry sound like real conversation and not just author exposition. (With which this script is filled!) She too gives a solid, professional, well executed supporting performance.
Leroy, the custodian played by David Lambert, is a showy and fun role; dirty, insinuating, crude and, for a play written in 1954, obscene. The audience is delighted every time he enters, shuffling on with thick Southern accent (the play is set in “a Southern city” according to the playbill) and sly looks. Mr. Lambert obviously has fun in this part and it is infectious, but perhaps more scheming and revealing of Leroy’s true nature, and a little less comedy, would present a more richly textured characterization and become less one dimensional. There is no doubt, however, that he makes an impression in the role.
Frank Wyatt as Richard Bravo, Rhoda’s grandfather, also presents a solid characterization with a clean and intelligent reading of his lines and confident stage presence. Richard has the responsibility of revealing to his daughter, Christine, the truth she is beginning to suspect. Again, the expositional writing doesn’t make it easy, but Mr. Wyatt manages to make the scene believable. He shows Richard’s reluctance to impart the information with his slight hesitations, concerned looks and vocal indications of sympathy for his daughter’s feelings. Mr. Wyatt’s affection toward Rhoda and her mother is palpable and believable.
Rusty Harding plays Reginald Tasker, a mystery writer and fellow tenant, and he has to get through long monologues that set up the author’s message of understanding the role genetics vs. environment play in a person’s personality and behavior. He handles the speeches with ease and conviction and somehow manages to make them almost plausible. Mr. Harding is comfortable on stage and puts the audience at ease. His skill as a performer keeps the audience interested through his rather lengthy descriptions.
In the crucial and lead role of Rhoda’s mother Christine, Lauren Gao unfortunately fails to create a truly credible character. She handles the text well and is confident in her stage presence, but spends a great deal of her time indicating and telegraphing to the audience, with exaggerated facial expressions and vocal mannerisms. Ms. Gao never finds and conveys what it costs her character to discover her child’s true personality and her occasional screaming is too simplistic and unimaginative. The decision to play her last scene as deranged, rather than that of a woman facing the crucial decision of a lifetime removes the heartbreak and possibility for a moment of near Greek tragedy proportions. Suddenly we are asking, “Where did this character come from?!” Granted, this is a difficult role with multiple layers to reveal and discoveries to convey, but Ms. Gao and perhaps Director Rachael Lindley, makes obvious choices and neglects those that would have proven more interesting. This actress is not without talent, and I would like to see her in another role that was perhaps more suited to her personality.
In the roles of Emory Wages and Mr. Daigle are Steven Shaw and Lloyd Webb. These gentlemen are effective in their brief appearances, creating characters that serve the play and help drive the action. As Rhoda’s father, Col Kenneth Penmark, Joseph Gerard appears in the first and last scenes, capably portraying two widely different emotions and attitudes as the story demands.
In the larger role of Miss Fern, headmistress of Rhoda’s school, Charlotte Giles nicely conveys the uneasiness of her character without telegraphing it, and is solid and capable in her role. Plays of this period often have many characters appearing only briefly, an option that huge Broadway expenses have taken from modern playwrights. Rare is the play today with characters making only one or two short entrances.
The Bad Seed clearly shows its age and reflects a different time in theatrical and society’s tastes. “Show it, don’t tell it,” is a theater maxim, and unfortunately this show, based on a novel, spends huge amounts of time having characters relate important things that have happened off stage and in the past. The protracted discussions of Freud, psychotherapy and “complexes”, and the drawn out conversations about the inheritance of evil, are just not something most modern audiences are willing to sit through with our electronic devices, instant gratification and short attention span compelling the story to hurry along.
Director Rachael Lindley keeps the wordy script moving and interesting as best she can, counting on the melodrama of the story to hold attention. She paces the show well and stages her actors efficiently, although they are often trapped upstage behind the sofa. Having actors continuously shouting during the most dramatic moments finally becomes a bit tedious. Conveying horror, anger and stony decisions with occasional steely quietness would be a welcome variation. Multiple costume and prop changes unfortunately create long scene changes.
The theater space is interesting, and the scene design by LaMar Graham and Rachael Lindley makes good use of the space’s wide dimensions, with the audience seated in a slightly curved configuration. The set is appropriately painted and dressed to reflect the location and economic level of the characters and the story being presented. Although no particular time period is listed, there are Photoplay magazines of the ‘50s on the set, the phone and radio also reflecting the time. The uncredited lighting design is basic but effective and illuminates the space evenly. Appropriate music, chosen by Sound Designers Rusty Harding and Richard Stephens, Jr., underscore without overpowering. The recurring music box melody is particularly effective. Costumes chosen by the director and the cast cover a wide range of periods while generally still maintaining a 50s feel, with hats on the women and white gloves on Miss Fern. Rhoda’s costumes are particularly interesting and perfect-little-girl like. The final costume for Monica Breedlove, however, is riotous in color and design, and pulls focus from the emotional impact the scene should deliver.
Richardson Theatre Centre’s production is generally tight, despite the overly talky script, and the acting level, for the most part, is high and confident. Production values are strong and the evening gives audiences who may not know this classic piece of theater a good chance to experience it. Community theaters of this caliber are what keep our local theater community strong and give actors a chance to do what they love and share that enthusiasm with a grateful public. While the show may have its faults, it is still an enjoyable and engrossing evening with many outstanding moments.
Richardson Theatre Centre
518 W. Arapaho Rd
Richardson, TX 75080
Runs through October 26th
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $20.00 Thursday and Sunday and $22.00 Friday and Saturday.
For tickets and information, contact www.richardsontheatrecentre.net or call their box office at 972-699-1130