Hope and Horror

Searing performances thaw the frozen landscapes of this powerful play

To hear him tell it, there is little out of the ordinary about the time Ralph met Rona, about his annoying but seemingly harmless pushiness, about the girl's eventual return of his insistent "Hello, hello, hello." Soon we learn, however, that Rona is but ten years old, that Ralph is a pedophile and serial killer, that the little girl never had a chance. Years later, sitting in jail for life, Ralph has no regrets. "The only thing I'm sorry about," he says in Bryony Lavery's enthralling Frozen, "is that it's not legal ... killing girls." He means it.

Ralph's is just one of the voices heard in this hit Broadway and West End play, now having its Florida premiere at GableStage in a gripping production directed by Joseph Adler and starring Bridget Connors, Lisa Morgan, and Gordon McConnell. There is also the voice of Nancy, little Rona's mother, as she settles into the frozen hope of her child's return, only to be confronted at last with identifying her daughter's remains at the morgue. And there is the voice of Agnetha, an American psychiatrist on her way to London to research her thesis: "Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?"

"My chosen expedition," says Agnetha, "is the Arctic frozen sea that is the criminal brain." As played by Connors, Agnetha initially has an unlikely all-American wackiness that contrasts nicely with the British reserve and heartbreaking pain of Morgan's Nancy. McConnell is chilling as Ralph, not least in his matter-of-fact attention to everything but his guilt. This polyphony of sorrow, this counterpoint of three strangers frozen in their ways, is marked by silences, including that of George Schiavone as an implacable prison guard who must simply stand by.

Lisa Morgan, Gordon McConnell, and Bridget Connors
Lisa Morgan, Gordon McConnell, and Bridget Connors

Details

Written by Bryony Lavery. Directed by Joseph Adler. With Bridget Connors, Lisa Morgan, Gordon McConnell, and George Schiavone. Presented through November 7 by GableStage. 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.
Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables;

Lavery's challenging, beautiful 1998 meditation on the limits of forgiveness at times strays into what is by now well-traveled territory, from more than a few TV episodes of Law and Order to Terrence McNally's underrated passion play Corpus Christi and his opera Dead Man Walking. Not the least disturbing and original detail of Frozen, however, is the irony the playwright brings to forgiveness itself. Without giving away too much, suffice to say here that the grieving mother's journey from thirst for revenge to forgiveness and serenity has an unexpected, shocking consequence.

True, the script near the end flirts with the sort of psychobabble that harks not only to Oprah and Dr. Phil but even to such pseudo-Freudian potboilers as The Three Faces of Eve. Faster than you can say, "Amber Alert," too much of the conflict is solved. Yet merely acknowledging a feeling does not always bring a drastic breakthrough in the real world. And both the mother's jailhouse confrontation with her daughter's killer near the climax and the psychiatrist's over-the-top panic attack at the start of the play strike false notes. These are rare, but they are worth mentioning if only because the actors' otherwise fearless performances prove so very riveting throughout most of the play.

Connors and McConnell should be trusted to linger longer in the overwhelming stillness of the mother's message, if only to let the depth of the meaning of forgiveness sink in. Morgan, in an admittedly underwritten role, simply should be less actory as the selfless scientist who turns out to have a very selfish streak. The potentially devastating irony of the last scene is played on the light side, an odd scherzo of an ending to a monumentally tragic symphony of grief. Still, simplified psychology can make for compelling theater. And Frozen is one powerful play.

Adler's swift direction helps. The play begins as a series of monologues for a trio of disparate characters, and its jagged dramatic structure allows little time for reflection. This works, actually. Glimpses into a mother's blind hope, brief intimations of a psychiatrist's own emotional vulnerability, frightening little vignettes of a serial killer's ordinariness -- these are the dizzying ingredients of a tale that spans two decades and portrays nothing less than every parent's worst nightmare.

The modest physical production sprawls a tad too much all over the GableStage's wide playing area. Jeff Quinn's set and lighting designs are, if anything, too specific, fussy. The realistic English garden at center stage is a lovely touch early on, but virtually all else gives away too much of what are essentially frozen landscapes of the mind. Karelle Levy's costumes, on the other hand, are as nearly pitch-perfect as Adler's direction: Everything rings true, from Nancy's very British dowdiness to Agnetha's drab academic suits. These details seem familiar, even banal. Much like evil. That may be the most unsettling detail of all.

 
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