It's hard to deal with murder -- particularly the rape, murder and dismemberment of a child -- without being exploitative. It's also hard to explore the issue of forgiveness without resorting to sentimentality. Bryony Lavery's play Frozen, currently at Curious Theatre Company, succeeds on both counts.
The three-character play involves a child-murderer, Ralph; Nancy, the mother of one of his victims; and a psychiatrist, Agnetha, who studies serial killers. The title refers both to the morally and emotionally frozen world in which such killers live, and to Nancy's life, which has essentially stopped since the death of her ten-year-old daughter, Rhona. Frozen begins with a series of monologues, during which we learn from Nancy that Rhona was snatched on the street while taking a pair of pruning shears to her grandmother. Ralph reveals his limited imagination and passion for order, describes his method of abduction and shows off his tattoos -- one for each of his seven victims. We see Agnetha leaving her home in New York for England, where she is to deliver a lecture and examine Ralph. She's clearly on the edge of hysteria, and toward the play's end, we discover why.
Form follows function, and Lavery's prolonged use of monologue comes to make sense. Each of the characters feels atomized and alone. When Agnetha gives a presentation, Ralph serves as an apparently non-sentient model while she points out various aspects of his cranium. Only after this do the two speak, and the build begins to the scene that we know is inevitable, the scene in which Nancy and Ralph meet.
1080 Acoma Street,
Presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 25, 303-623-0524, www.curious theatre.org
Agnetha's theories about serial killers are based on the real-life work of psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis, who discovered that these men are almost always the product of abusive childhoods and that many suffered damage to particular parts of the brain. They are sick rather than sinful, Agnetha believes, and should be forgiven their sickness. Nancy's older daughter, Ingrid, is a new-agey type who urges her mother to live in the moment and find a way to forgive Ralph, but Nancy is choked by hatred and despair.
Frozen can't be defined solely as a story about forgiveness, however; it's more complex than that. Despite all of Agnetha's theorizing, Ralph is evil -- has to be, if that word is to retain any meaning at all. And Lavery has taken care not to make him excitingly or seductively so. He's manipulative but hardly brilliant, narrow and pathetic rather than tragic. Whether his final act should be seen as redemptive or the working out of some grim cosmic justice isn't clear -- and the play is stronger for it.
With the exception of a couple of key scenes, the feeling in Frozen is deliberately tamped down. You're spared the brutal details of what happened to Rhona. Nancy, a prototypical Englishwoman, humorous and occasionally brusque, doesn't indulge much in weeping or self-pity. Like surviving daughter Ingrid, you sometimes seem to be watching the play's events through thick, gray ice. Some might see this as a weakness, but I see it as a strength: I'm tired of the sentimentality of much American culture, and I don't like being emotionally manipulated. Lavery's distancing allows me to take in subject matter that would otherwise swamp the senses.
Anthony Powell's direction is first-rate, as is Susan Crabtree's set. Diana Dresser turns in a vital performance as Agnetha. Kathryn Gray fully expresses Nancy's emotions and her wit, although the rhythms of her fake English accent jar. Good actors become the characters they play, and I imagine becoming Ralph would almost make the body turn inside out in revulsion against itself. But William Hahn rivets in the role, making Ralph both ordinary and mesmerizing in a performance that's courageous, painstaking, skilled and purely brilliant.
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The dialogue is sharp, and the characters feel both authentic and surprising. One small example: After Nancy's visit, Ralph tells Agnetha that she has forgiven him. "We're straight on it," he says, casual, unemphatic, as if the rape and murder of Nancy's child were a minor financial squabble.
This is terrific writing -- but it's also one of the reasons Frozen has become controversial. Dorothy Lewis apparently saw so much of her own life in the play that she's accused Lavery of plagiarism. Some of the descriptions of Agnetha's work are taken verbatim from an article about Lewis that Malcolm Gladwell wrote for the New Yorker. In a second New Yorker article, Gladwell -- a strong admirer of Frozen -- minutely examined notions of plagiarism and intellectual property, and pretty much exonerated Lavery. The play is inspired in part by the writings of Marian Partington, whose younger sister Lucy was killed by a notorious English serial killer, Frederick West, and who spent years attempting to move toward a state resembling grace; Lavery has fully acknowledged her debt to Marian Partington, Gladwell pointed out.
One of the most amazing moments in Frozen occurs when Nancy handles Rhona's skull, feels the shape of her child's head in her hands and is filled with joy. In her own writing, Partington described an almost identical scene: "I gasped at the beauty of her skull.... Not a glimmer of fear, not a morbid thought entered the experience. I lifted her skull with great care and tenderness and kissed her brow. I marvelled at the sense of recognition in its curves and proportion.... Before I placed her skull back I laid a branch of heather entwined with sheep's wool from the top of Plynlimon in the bottom of the box." (In Frozen, Nancy lays a piece of wool-tangled gorse in Rhona's coffin.)
All fiction writers use bits and pieces from life in their work -- newspaper articles, snatches of conversation, remembered scenes. If a bereaved sister had spoken those words to almost any novelist, it would be a wonder if some version of them didn't turn up in a book; does it really make a difference that Partington wrote, rather than spoke, them? I don't believe Lavery meant to plagiarize, nor is she a writer who needs to: Frozen is filled with words that are revelatory, tough-minded, beautiful and entirely her own.