FROZEN: Playwright Bryony Lavery asks some cold, hard questions
March 15, 2008 - 03:28.
You know you’re seeing good theater when the characters seem as real as your next-door neighbors. You know you’re seeing great theater when the characters who don’t appear onstage, but who are described by the actors, seem so real that you swear you saw them standing there. This is how I’ll remember Park Square Theater’s production of FROZEN, a story that will make you want to hug your children (or your teddy bear).
I’m so grateful that the West Bank Ensemble, a quintet of soaringly talented University of Minnesota students, performed in the lobby to bookend this play. The transformative power of that music wrapped a comforting stole around the shoulders of a play about forgiving the unforgivable.
Having read the synopsis of FROZEN, my companion and I clung to every last note of the ensemble, then wadded up some tissues in our hands in preparation, and stepped from the “light, bright and clear” into the dusk. Onstage loomed a stage prop wall of ice. It was cold in there.
FROZEN is the story of a mother whose daughter is murdered by a pedophile. The thirty scenes are a rotation of monologues from each of three main characters: Nancy (Karen Landry), the mother of the murdered girl; Ralph (Terry Hempleman), the pedophile who was himself abused as a child; and Agnetha (Linda Kelsey), a researcher engaged in a study to determine why some violent criminals behave without remorse, while dealing with grief of her own.
Given the weight of the subject matter, knowing the order in which the characters would appear—having something predictable to hold onto—is a welcome anodyne.
By turns, each character reveals the dreams that drive them, as well as the mundane aspects of their lives. Through Nancy we get to know her husband, Bob, in the midst of his midlife crisis, and their two daughters—volatile, self-absorbed teenager Ingrid and responsible, obedient ten-year-old Rhona. In Agnetha‘s monologues we get acquainted with her deceased academic partner, David, and in Ralph’s rant we meet his hateful dad.
These personalities we never see are of greater material importance to the setting of the play than is the prison guard, for whom an actor was cast. Yet the scripting is so powerful that we don’t need them to physically be there to appreciate them. I believe their presence—I mean absence—makes FROZEN a heart-wrenching experience. For lack of a ten-year-old face we might have seen in Pippi Longstocking, and can therefore label “actress,” we are left to imagine the abduction and murder of a child of our own, or one we know.
In FROZEN we are pulled by a tow rope through the chill of a criminal mind, across the tundra of helplessness, and up the icy slopes of a hill that is too dangerous to live on and too steep to descend in any rational way. So down we go, eyesight blurring in the frigid wind, until at last we come to rest in a new place. We stand immobile, not quite trusting the berg below our feet to remain steady. Then we simply slog toward the sun. There’s really nothing else to do.
So many questions are explored in this play: How could a man do such horrible things to a child? How can we allow our children freedom and responsibility, yet protect them from harm? Is such a violent crime forgivable? Can forgiveness ease the pain? And what constitutes redemption? Makes ya think. And cry. And think some more.
Director James Cada describes this production, coming from Broadway, as “an emotional workout,” and judging by the frequency of sniffles in the dark theater, not to mention the long lines for wine at intermission, I doubt there is a more apt summary.
The play offers a mental workout, too. In presenting her thesis to her colleagues—a thesis concluding that serial killers are damaged, not morally depraved—Agnetha declares, “The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom.”
It is this conclusion that helps Nancy to finally forgive an unrepentant murderer—yet to indict a remorseful Agnetha for being the cause of her own suffering. (No one, after all, is excluded when the researcher describes the object of her study as “the arctic, frozen sea that is the human brain.” Not even herself.)
FROZEN is two of the darker hours you’ll spend in a theater, but as with any workout routine, there’s a warm-up and a cool-down, and there are humorous moments, to ensure that you can handle the hard stuff. Along with the 60 Minutes episode on Internet predators, this play should be on every parent’s must-see list. (It is not for children under age 15.)
“I couldn’t see that play. I’d die,” said my friend who has three young children and runs a Montessori school. I understand—child abduction, rape and murder is not something that you want to think about, especially when you’ve dedicated your life to nurturing children. But to her, and to everyone of like mind, let me say that this is the great gift of live theater: to carry us safely away to another time and place, and to return us wiser and unharmed.
Note: If mental and emotional exercise makes you hungry, head down the hall to Meritage in the former Au Rebours space, where everything is delicious (try the Hendricks gin elderflower martini and the pommes frites). Thanks to Jersey Boy-wannabe Morgan for fast service, great recommendations, and wonderful cheeses! For reservations, call 651-222-5760.
FROZEN runs through March 30 at Park Square Theatre in the historic Hamm Building, 408 St. Peter Street, St. Paul. Box office: 651-291-7005.