Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Bad Seed
I once saw heror rather, I heard these frantic, running high-heels (clack-clack-clack!), and looked up in the theater shop one night, to see her racing across the backstage area during a performance (as I was waiting to go on).
There she was: this half-human form, a pair of legs, a white skirtand above that, some towering mass that all went dashing past me at a high rate of speed. It was Ms. Ryan, with a dress pulled way up, covering her head, hurrying (between band saws and sawhorses) across the sawdust as she changed her costumes (literally) on the run. In heels. In the dark.
She'd been tasked to make two costume changes (during her performance of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow") and each time to "magically" reappear someplace else, after brief choral interludes in the big opening to act two of Anything Goes. And she did this every night, in that 2001 production, without a word of complaint (that I ever heard).
Apparently, she developed this fierce determination from the grueling, sometimes humiliating, demands of performing as a teenager on stage at Six Flags Over Mid-America, years ago, about 30 minutes west of here.
And now, 12 years after I witnessed her display of backstage showmanship, the question is: how did Mrs. Ryan get one of her own little daughters up-to-speed so quickly, to perform so flawlessly in The Bad Seed, an iconic bit of American drama?
It must be "something in the genes."
Which brings us right up to Maxwell Anderson's meditation on nature versus nurture. This production is horrifying, highly naturalistic, and just about as smooth as silk. Archie Coleman is excellent as a criminologist, and Mary Klein adeptly pounds home the guilt as an alcoholic mother who's suddenly lost her only childa little boy who happened to beat the eight-year-old title character (Kaylee Ryan) in a penmanship contest.
Betsy Jones directs with great thoughtfulness and patience, allowing performers like Ann E. Egenriether to shine with spontaneity and grace in every moment. Ms. Egenriether is the all-too-helpful landlady, and Ethan H. Jones is excellent as the handyman who privately crosses swords with little Miss Ryan (as Rhoda). Thanks to Mr. Jones we get a very eerie glimpse into the mind of a sociopath, before the term came into common usage.
The term "bad seed" dates back, at least, to the parable of the sower, and is still popular today in a sort of campy way. The Bad Seed was the name of the 1954 novel by William March and the Broadway play it inspired later that same year. In the story, a housewife suspects she may have been adopted as a child, and a criminologist's account of a famous murderess rings a strange bell in her mind. On top of that, the present-day clues to the death of that little boy who won the penmanship award seem to point directly to her own pig-tailed little daughter.
In any case, it's not campy at all, which is a huge relief (as everything seems to be campy as a shortcut to cleverness anymore). There certainly are laughs in the audience, as Rhoda's manipulative ways are quietly, steadily revealed. But there's something so overwhelmingly natural about the way she skips across the stage and blithely discusses all her views on life and what she's done, that a complete air of plausibility becomes the most shocking thing of all.
And when Christine (the mother) finally confronts Rhoda, you can really see the fierce determination of a real-life mother, swooping down on her real-life daughter, the way they used to do. Too bad the on-stage mother is so very, very out-matched in the bargain. But thank goodness Kaylee Ryan's apple didn't fall far very from the tree.
Through May 5, 2013, at the Washington University South Campus (the old CBC prep school, across from the Esquire movie theater). Enter from the parking lot, on the west side of the building. For more information go to www.placeseveryone.org