Grief encounters

Frozen , Dark As a Thousand Midnights , A Prayer for Owen Meany
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  January 25, 2006

Bryony Lavery turns a cold eye on a heated subject in Frozen (at New Repertory Theatre through February 12). This 1998 work by the seasoned British playwright wanders into “the frozen terrain that is the criminal brain” to explore the possibility and the ramifications of forgiveness — a subject that resonates on both a personal and a political level. But the play is a lonely act of purgation, the distances among its three characters rigorously adhered to in Adam Zahler’s dignified, muted production for New Repertory Theatre.FROZEN Dostoyevsky needn't watch his back

Lavery is in Lovely Bones territory in Frozen, which was nominated for a 2004 Tony and short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize (despite a flap over material lifted directly from a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell about the work of psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis). The play charts the interrelated journeys of a mother raging and grieving through decades for a murdered child, the detached killer convicted of offing her and others, and an American psychiatrist of Icelandic descent trafficking in the psychology of serial killers and ice-strewn metaphor. To my mind, the play is not in a league with the best dramas consisting entirely or mostly of interlaced monologue, including Brian Friel’s Faith Healer and Molly Sweeney. It’s decently written and avoids sensationalism as it wanders its careful way through painful territory, considering the nature of evil and the merits of forgiveness (and self-forgiveness). But Dostoyevsky need feel no hot breath at his back.

At New Rep, Frozen unfolds amid a terrain of shallow snow, each of the characters confined to a compartment of Richard Wadsworth Chambers’s pristine laboratory/igloo-like upstage shelter. In turn they step forward, shedding shards of their stories. An agonizingly restrained Nancy E. Carroll conveys the never-ending bitterness — like a slough through which she visibly staggers — of losing a child and for many years not knowing the girl’s fate. Her character both withers as a human being and strives as a newly minted activist. Most heartbreaking is the cold, broken nurturing she is able to offer her remaining child — who in the end, too abruptly to be believed, triggers her mother’s about-face request to confront and forgive her daughter’s killer.

By contrast, an unnerving Bates Wilder presents killer Ralph Wantage as the banality of amorality personified. A putty-faced man, nondescript but for a limp, he calls the shed where he committed his crimes the “center of my operations” and prides himself on pathetic lies about an Ozzie-and-Harriet-tucked-into-a-tea-cozy childhood. When asked by the psychiatrist about remorse, he replies that he’s only sorry killing kiddies isn’t legal. Of course, he’s a sinkhole of guilt waiting to be pushed into.

The least buyable role is seemingly the most objective: that of psychiatrist Agnetha Gottmundsdottir (Adrianne Hewlett), whose thesis is titled “Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?” Its intent is to distinguish “crimes of evil” from “crimes of illness,” sin from symptom, and Wantage is the current lump in the shrink’s Petri dish. Lugging a briefcase as well as more soap-operatic baggage, Gottmundsdottir, her secret guilt coloring her scientific quest to humanize monstrosity, seems disproportionately wounded in relation to the other two, whose stressful thaws find them melting down different sides of the life/death divide.

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