If Hilary Bell had written a TV movie, her play Wolf Lullaby would have ended very differently. A kind, hip social worker, perhaps portrayed by Oprah, would have intervened on behalf of Lizzie Gael and her dysfunctional family, solving their problems, reassuring us about the healing power of love. Instead, we have a play which examines a disturbing topic, the alleged murder of a child by a child, and doesn't tack on pat answers to society's problems, let alone provide us a happy ending.
Lizzie Gael, portrayed exquisitely by Kate Blumberg, is a charming nine year old girl who keeps getting into trouble. The local police officer, Sergeant Ray Armstrong, first hauls her down to the station to question her about recently pilfered magic markers. Later, she is suspected of killing a small bird, the pet of a classmate. As we watch Lizzie's lies unfold, we also learn about the world in which she lives. Angela, her single mother, struggles not only to support Lizzie financially, but also to give attention to this lively, imaginative child. Lizzie's father, Warren, is affectionate and tender with his daughter, but as the accusations against her become more serious, he becomes more and more remote. Lizzie's parents are good people. They are, in many respects, ordinary people. There is no obvious reason for their daughter to have begun doing the things she has done, except maybe that she has to work increasingly harder to be heard.
Where Bell succeeds most brilliantly, I feel, is in the scene in which Lizzie, knowing she has upset her mother, struggles to find a way back into her affection. Angela desperately wants to be convinced of Lizzie's innocence and Lizzie wants nothing more than to please her mother. We watch Lizzie invent a lie which implicates another child in the crime; we watch her warm to her tale as her mother's relief and peace of mind become apparent. It is so familiar. So many of us can remember the lies of childhood, the ease with which we improved on the truth.
At about the same age as Lizzie, I stole my teen-age sister's opal ring, which I'd long coveted. Realizing soon after that I could never wear it without being discovered, I told my sister I'd found her lost treasure, omitting my part in its disappearance. She was immeasurably grateful and I basked in her appreciation and praise. Stealing a ring is not the same as murder. I know this, and yet I can relate to Lizzie in her desperation to get out of trouble. I can relate to each of her parents as they try to understand what their child has done, and to what extent they are culpable. I can relate, too, to the sergeant, whose frustration grows as he cannot force what he believes to be the truth out of this little girl. This is the man who in the end comes to understand her best.
Wolf Lullaby unapologetically explores the potential for cruelty in small children. Is Lizzie Evil Incarnate, a Bad Seed for the 90s? Nothing in this play is that simple. Lizzie is adorable. She's funny and creative, telling stories and drawing pictures. She could be any child you've ever met, or the child you once were. In one telling scene, her parents discuss their own childhoods, recalling the unkind or even brutal things they did. Lizzie's father remembers that as a child he "stopped" before going too far, but Angela qualifies this by saying they "were stopped." She recognizes the disturbing truth that she might have been in Lizzie's position had not fate intervened. She was simply luckier than her daughter. In a panel discussion which followed the performance, Bell stated that she deliberately tried to subvert her audience's ability to say the crime was the result of one clear cut thing. She tried to undermine our ability to be comforted by the idea that such things only happen to "people like that."
My companion for the evening, my good friend Eugene, drew a logical comparison to The Capeman. Both works tell stories of young people who are implicated in violent crimes and both attempt to understand the roots of such violence, but Wolf Lullaby succeeds in eliciting compassion for its protagonist, where The Capeman fails. Sal Agron may lose the audience's sympathy because the play allows us to see the crime being committed and then has Sal assert his innocence, while in Wolf Lullaby, we learn of the murder after the fact. Perhaps we more readily forgive the actions of a little girl than we do those of a teen-age boy. Perhaps race plays a part here, as well, as The Capeman taps into racist assumptions which are ingrained in us.
Bell took her inspiration, in part, from the many true-life incidents of pre-adolescent murderers. In fact, the face with the winsome smile on the play's poster is that of Mary Bell (no relation), who in 1968, at the age of 10, was convicted of killing two babies and was subsequently imprisoned until she was 23.
The performances in this production are strong. I am not an actor (nor do I play one on TV) but I imagine that it is an interesting challenge to play characters who are not wholly sympathetic, and whose emotions fluctuate throughout the play. The actors, particularly those playing adults, have to hit so many notes, from terror to tenderness, from disgust to disillusionment, and Bell has given them a kind of rapid-fire canvas upon which to work. The set, which is minimal, goes to black between the play's short, intense scenes, which demand of the actors a boxer's reflexes. They must frequently and suddenly shift gears to accommodate the emotion of each new scene. As the mother, Mary McCann inhabited her character seamlessly. Without making her one-sided, McCann bravely explored the darker side of her character where another actress might have softened the part to make her more sympathetic. Lizzie's father was played by Jordan Lage, who played the working-class father with sensitivity. Larry Bryggman, as the sergeant, was both frightening and endearing, a difficult combination to achieve. The stand-out performance had to be Kate Blumberg as Lizzie. I forgot I was watching a grown woman; she moved and spoke as a nine year old girl, without being affectedly cute.
The play is provocative and intelligently written. The audience leaves the theatre discussing the issues raised by the play, which is a sign of good theatre; one man said it made him think about his own actions as a father. I am reminded of James Thurber's comment that, "it's better to have some of the questions than all of the answers." This is certainly true for Wolf Lullaby.
Wolf Lullaby opened at the Atlantic Theater (336 W. 20th Street) October 28th and runs at least through November 22, 1998. Tickets are $35 and $40, and there are $10 student rush tickets available on the day of the performance.
*Watch for my interview with Hilary Bell later this month!