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.
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.
The residual horror of child murder is also at the heart of Jacqui Parker’s Dark As a Thousand Midnights, which debuted last week at the 2006 Boston African American Theatre Festival. Parker, a formidable actor who anchored her own cast, focuses on an African-American family enduring the summer of 1955 not far from the Mississippi hamlet where 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered, ostensibly for whistling at a white grocer’s wife. But Dark As a Thousand Midnights, though it utilizes filmed testimony by Till’s mother and uncle, is not a documentary drama. It’s a fiction cast in the shadow of that dark time, centered on the family of Bell Mae and Jessie Riley, who cleave to values and try to do the right thing in an increasingly ugly atmosphere as the Klan runs rampant and Till’s killers’ trial, despite the efforts of the NAACP, moves toward a farcical acquittal. There’s terror aplenty, and some melodrama, as the Rileys’ 12-year-old daughter goes missing and the parents go to any lengths to retrieve her.
Parker’s play, which under Darius Omar Williams’s direction was believably acted by a cast that included two children, is loaded with mid-20th-century Mississippi atmosphere, both folksy and appalling, and most of the dialogue rings true. But there’s too much going on in the nearly three-hour drama, which tries to get its arms around the Till trial while serving a thick slice of earthy, upright family life and cooking up a drama of its own.