The Nature of Forgiveness

The performances make Beowulf Alley's production of 'Frozen' something special

Three brave and understated performances provide enough warmth to contradict the title of Bryony Lavery's most honored and controversial play, Frozen. Beowulf Alley Theatre Company is presenting this work entwining the stories of a serial killer, the mother of one of his victims and a psychiatrist who understands the killer better than she understands herself.

One day, on her way to visit her grandmother, a young English girl named Rhona disappears. Her mother, Nancy (played here by Delani Cody, finding strength through anguish), holds out hope for years that Rhona is still alive. She even founds an organization dedicated to reuniting lost children with their parents. Alas, Rhona has had the misfortune of meeting Ralph (Jonathan Northover, chilling in his quiet amorality), who has kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered the little girl. Ralph is a meticulous, tattooed drifter who keeps a treasured collection of kiddie porn catalogued, carefully wrapped and stored away safely, just like the bodies of his victims he keeps wrapped tidily in a rented shed. When Ralph is ultimately arrested, he attributes his apprehension to "a real slip-up in terms of efficiency" in his latest "incident."

Eventually, an American psychiatrist named Agnetha (played with keen complexity by Lesley Abrams) visits London to present her research, and conduct further investigation, into the brain physiology of serial killers. Her paper is titled "Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?" and hinges on the thesis that these killers do what they do because their brains were damaged through early physical and emotional abuse. "The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness," Agnetha declares, "is the difference between a sin and a symptom." Men like Ralph are ill, not evil.

The presence of Agnetha raises Frozen above the level of routine psychodrama, yet Agnetha too often seems a distraction from the people we really want to know about: Nancy and Ralph.

In the first act, each character helps lay out the exposition through interlinked monologs. Here, Lavery can't always give the two female characters a sense of immediacy; only Ralph is clearly grounded in the present, for his past is unbearable, and his future is nonexistent. The characters interact in the second act, and here, they all become figures with much more at stake in the here and now. But psychiatrist Agnetha keeps stepping in the way. Lavery clearly wanted to flesh her out, not let her become one of those incidental expert witnesses who explains everything to us while the main characters skip off for costume changes. Yet Agnetha seems to be imposed on the story rather than essential to it.

We know early on who killed Rhona, so the only mystery here is why Agnetha breaks down, alone in her apartment, in the first scene (a moment that Abrams handles superbly, with almost no onstage preparation). We don't fully understand what's going on with Agnetha until the final scene, but her "crime" or "sin" is hardly of the magnitude of Ralph's. It's more akin to playwright Lavery's own sin: plagiarism.

Lavery, in pursuit of verisimilitude, drew heavily from several sources in crafting her characters. It turns out that Agnetha is based on a real American psychiatrist named Dorothy Lewis, who after she saw the play, said, "It was as if someone had stolen my essence."

Lavery drew material almost verbatim from Lewis' book Guilty by Reason of Insanity, and from a profile of Lewis that Malcolm Gladwell had written for The New Yorker. A little scandal ensued, but eventually, Gladwell was far less indignant than Lewis about Lavery's appropriation of their work. As Gladwell wrote in a later New Yorker piece, "Bryony Lavery had seen one of my articles, responded to what she read and used it as she constructed a work of art. And now her reputation was in tatters. Something about that didn't seem right."

Gladwell forgave Lavery, which is nice, because forgiveness, not just grief, lies at the center of this play. Here's what Lavery told Gladwell about the genesis of the play: "It seemed to me that killing somehow wasn't fiendishly clever. It was the opposite of clever. It was as banal and stupid and destructive as it could be. There are these interviews with the survivors, and what struck me was that they appeared to be frozen in time. And one of them said, 'If that man was out now, I'm a forgiving man but I couldn't forgive him. I'd kill him.' ... In a lot of ways, Frozen was an attempt to understand the nature of forgiveness."

Can Ralph be forgiven? Lavery humanizes him without turning him into an even remotely nice man. He's initially a controlling, methodical fellow looking for "company," and you can see why a naive child might take a chance and follow him into his van. Ultimately, Ralph himself seems childlike in his final interviews: not sympathetic, but understandable.

All three characters have more in common than they would admit. None can cope with their own emotions, and each, in a different way and to a different degree, is insensitive to the true emotions of others. They are experts at suppression, Ralph above all; at the drop of a hat, he can spin fantasies he doesn't believe about a warm, loving family background.

And even if Lavery can't quite make Agnetha's presence convincing, she crafts some remarkable scenes, without resorting to bathos. Consider Nancy's touching moment in the bedroom of her lost daughter, mirrored in the second act by a last moment with her daughter's remains, a scene whose macabre nature balances out its sentimentality and settles into something that's truly moving rather than maudlin.

Director Stephen Elton understands that this is not a play of histrionics, and helps his actors establish natural emotional rhythms, complete with small pulses of humor. Jon Marbry's ruminative original music adds immeasurably to the production.

The play slowly works its way toward something like a satisfying resolution, although happy endings are impossible for any of these characters. In Frozen, these people don't merely thaw; they melt.

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