The Studio space at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis has hosted some high-voltage drama in its thirty-plus years, but none more electric or more demanding (for both cast and audience) than the production of Bryony Lavery's play Frozen which opened a three-week run on Friday, January 21.
Upon hearing that the play was about a pedophile serial killer, I feared it might turn out to be a grisly blend of violence and porn, or, alternatively, a psycho-sociological treatise aimed strictly at the heads of the audience. In fact the play is neither, though it contains enough implicit violence, and sexual violence graphically spoken of, to generate edge-of-the-seat dramatic impact, and at the same time - paradoxically - a cleverly integrated and compelling psychological analysis and explanation of psychopathic behavior.
But Miss Lavery's achievement goes far beyond simply integrating these disparate threads. By placing the actions and attitudes of a genuinely loathsome human being in the context of their effects on two remarkable women - who themselves interact only in the most peripheral way - and then having these women as well as the criminal open themselves to the audience in a thoroughly disarming sequence of monologues, Miss Lavery forces her audience to come uncomfortably close to understanding and forgiving the unthinkable.
Nancy, the unremarkable British mother of a ten-year-old child who goes missing, chats us up about housekeeping and gardening, allows us a painfully intimate view of the rage seething beneath her stoic reaction to her loss, and ultimately achieves a kind of spiritual balance, a sense of stability which allows her to consider not only forgiving but having pity for her child's murderer. Agnetha, a vivid and forceful American academic with a world-wide reputation, a morbid fear of flying and a sinful secret of her own, comes to interview and examine the murderer as a part of an ongoing study of the brain structure of such sociopaths.
Ralph, the murderer, opens himself to us immediately as a careful planner with an elaborate if thoroughly perverse system of values, the kind of man who is aware enough to excuse himself for uttering a profane word, and oblivious enough - or simply aggressive enough - to blister the air for minutes at a time without another thought. If it is true, as Agnetha theorizes, that his criminal behavior is less a sin than a symptom of the damage wrought on his physical brain by heredity and a childhood of unimaginable abuse, it is nevertheless also true that his impact on society is disastrous and that he is incapable of controlling himself. Asked if he regrets anything, he wishes with appalling earnestness that killing little girls were not illegal.
After establishing these characters in a series of monologues, the play takes a more traditional structural direction with the interviews between Agnetha and Ralph, in which her ideas are developed and juxtaposed with his accounts of his crimes.
But the defining moment is a scene in the second act in which Nancy, decades after the loss of her child, comes to visit Ralph, bearing photographs of the child and the family as they were. The first, wordless moments of this scene, and the painful effort at communication which follows, are almost unbearably powerful.
Director Harold Scott marshals a very strong cast. Arnie Burton is utterly convincing as Ralph, from dead-on working-class dialect to virtuosic movement. Henny Russel creates a charming but authoritative Agnetha. Pamela Wiggins makes Nancy - in all of her phases - the kind of woman we would love to have for a neighbor. Christopher Harris is a solid presence in the almost silent role of the prison guard.
Technically, this production is impressive all around, with a simple but colorful set and deft lighting by Michael Phillipi and solid costumes by Elizabeth Covey.
The subject matter may seem repellent, but Bryony Lavery's Frozen is a play of rare - if often raw - power, and the Rep's production of it is not to be missed.
Frozen runs through February 6 at the Studio Theater, Repertory Theater of St. Louis. For tickets and performance information, call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.