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Review: 'Bad Seed' does justice to horrible scenario

After Columbine every parent must have thought how horrible it would be to be the last person to know their child was a killer. "Bad Seed" comes up with an even worse scenario: What if you were not the last but the first to know? And what if the ...

After Columbine every parent must have thought how horrible it would be to be the last person to know their child was a killer.

"Bad Seed" comes up with an even worse scenario: What if you were not the last but the first to know? And what if the monster was a cute little 8-year-old girl with pigtails who performs perfect curtseys?

Rhoda Penmark is a little ray of sunshine, but whatever Rhoda wants, Rhoda gets. What Rhoda wants more than anything else is the gold penmanship medal that Miss Fern awarded to Claude Daigel.

I would not have thought that footwork could be such a pivotal part of a characterization, but as Rhoda, young Kier Wahman Zimmerman gives us other things to pay attention to in her performance besides her chilling plasticine smile that literally brought gasps from the opening night Playhouse audience.

The end of the first act of "Bad Seed" is a scene that has been a staple of dramatic interpretation in high school speech contests for decades. As Christine, Rhoda's mother, Shannon Gardner chooses to play the scene by turning cold and shutting down. I would have preferred to see her convey more of the horror at the growing chain of evidence that her daughter is a cold-blooded little killer.

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However, in the second act, when all the pieces come together and Christine's world explodes, Gardner provides a heart-rending performance that goes from near hysteria to a moment of utter desolation as the truth drives Christine to her knees. From the moment her own mask shatters, it is Christine who becomes the pivotal character in this thriller. I just think that we need to see the cracks more clearly from the start of Act II to better set up this payoff.

Director Kathy Laakso sets the stage with a droll, ironic use of Doris Day's "Que sera, sera," and sets up the tightrope she wants the cast to walk between comedy and terror. This proved to be mostly a success, with one glaring exception.

When Mrs. Daigle (Ellie Martin) shows up to confront Christine regarding the missing medal, from the moment she declared she was a lush, the audience took this to be a comic turn. But this is a woman whose only child is dead, and the continued laughter at her drinking references was quite unsettling. Her situation clearly does not warrant the response, and to my ear Mrs. Daigle's dialogue dictates she should be an ugly and pathetic drunk, not a comic one.

Of the supporting players, Holly Vontin plays the part of Monica Breedlove with great relish. Pay attention to her Act I, Scene 2 definition of "larvated," because it is the play's master metaphor. Some of the best moments in the production come between Rhoda and Dante Pirtle's Leroy, the caretaker of the building who is the first one to see through the little girl's mask, but who makes the mistake of underestimating her.

Maxwell Anderson's dramatization of William March's novel "The Bad Seed" does get into the nature/nurture issue, but then the title gives away which side of the debate the play favors.

Most importantly, if you have seen the 1956 movie version of "The Bad Seed," with its dues ex machina ending ordered by the studio, let me assure you that you really have not seen this story, and you will not be prepared for the way it plays out.

LAWRANCE BERNABO teaches at Lake Superior College and has the sweetest students in the world. Everybody says so.

Related Topics: THEATER
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