The kid’s not all right in Encore’s skillful revival of The Bad Seed
By James MacKillop
The Bad Seed, with its premise of the cute little girl who is rotten to the core, is so familiar it’s most often seen these days in parody, such as Joel Paley and Marvin Laird’s Ruthless: The Musical. Additionally, the persistence of director Mervyn LeRoy’s censored 1956 movie version in pre-Halloween television programming may lull audiences into forgetting that the stage original by Maxwell Anderson comes with a dark O.Henryesque ending. (The goody-goody Hays Office, then still in power, would not allow the play’s ending for the movie.)
Director William Edward White invites a more ambitious comparison with Encore Presentations’ current show at Jamesville’s Glen Loch restaurant. Flaunting his pearshaped silhouette he begins his curtain speech with Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette,” best remembered as the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series’ theme music. And White has a point.
Anderson’s 1954 stage play, which ran for 334 performances, is hard to categorize, which may explain why it is rarely revived. White’s argument that Bad Seed is a Hitchcockian thriller, even without a MacGuffin or a wronged man, is right on. Hitchcock loved the sense of danger in bland or unlikely places: Who before portrayed a little girl as lethal? But there is little suspense in the first act because everyone entering the theater knows that Rhoda Penmark (Lucy Digenova) is a monster. We’re just waiting for the horns to emerge. Suspense, absent in the film, builds precipitously on stage. We just can’t guess how much havoc the little monster is going to wreak.
Getting back to The Bad Seed’s mixed identity, what we see is the product of two disparate imaginations. First came the novel of the same title by William March (1893-1954), published just as the author was dying and in the same year as the Broadway opening. Previously known for gritty realism set in World War I trenches, March wanted to address philosophical and sociological questions about what was then seen as a calamitous rise of juvenile delinquency. At the center is the familiar nature vs. nurture debate, only March relied on archaic anecdotes (a century-old female serial killer) and clinical research long since superseded.
All this didactic theorizing could have been deadly without playwright Anderson’s shaping and director White’s light touch. On one hand we have the self-described “garrulous” landlady of the Penmark apartment building, Monica Breedlove (Judy Schmid), who prates on about her knowledge of Sigmund Freud. She may or may not know what she’s talking about, but as Schmid portrays Monica, she is anything but pedantic. Taking opposite views, and also providing a complicated backstory, is writer Reginald Tasker (Justin Polly), a friend of Monica’s. Polly plays him as diffident and reluctant, even though he speaks more for novelist March’s point of view and has some shocking insights into the family’s past.
The Bad Seed is wholly atypical of Anderson’s output, for which we can be grateful. A multiple Tony and Pulitzer winner, Anderson (1888-1959) took on the job of adapting March reputedly because he was behind in alimony payments. He was admired in his day for artistically ambitious plays like Winterset and Anne of a Thousand Days, whose high-flown “poetic” dialogue contemporary audiences find unbearable. There’s a touch of that, as when Monica speaks of “calm seas and prosperous voyage.”Anderson also suggests unspoken, forbidden relationships between characters, increasing tension. What Anderson contributes best is more basic, a workmanlike structure where comic or vulgar characters pop up for needed changes of tone.
Better yet is the well-plotted surprise finish that was mutilated in the movie. We keep talking about it but can’t tell you what it is.
The setting is Pensacola, Fla., site of the huge naval air base. The Penfields live in an apartment building, which is why landlady Monica is always handy. Such a building also allows for the frequent entrances of unwashed, insinuating maintenance man LeRoy Jessup (Dan Rowlands). In the first scene we learn that Rhoda’s father Kenneth (Alan Stillman), a naval officer, is leaving to take up duties in the cold war, acknowledging that they all live in a dangerous world. This will leave Rhoda’s mother Christine (Kasey McHale) alone and vulnerable. Christine’s father Richard Bravo (Keith Arlington) is a crime writer whose revelations about the family are deeply unsettling. In March’s novel he died before the beginning of the action, but Anderson wisely lets him live to make important speeches.
Christine Penfield is really the most important character, which is why actress Nancy Kelly won a Tony Award for playing it in the original cast. What she learns, and how she chooses to act upon it, are the most important things that happen on stage. Kasey McHale, a 2008 Le Moyne College graduate, looks a trifle young to be the mother of a 10-year-old, but in all other respects she speaks well for the training she received in William Morris’ program. Yes, she may speak, but all the expression is in Christine’s face, from love to incredulity, from surprise to horror, from disgust to resolution. She has to do something about the little miscreant.
Having the setting in the South (another Anderson innovation) adds important elements to what we see. First, there are the accents, and it’s curious that talkative Monica has one of the most prominent. Second is a greater awareness of class differences. Rhoda attends a private school run by stiff-necked Miss Fern (Crystal Roupas). One of Rhoda’s first tangles is with a boy from a family of lower status, the Daigles: blowsy Mrs. Daigle (riotous Kathy Egloff), who introduces herself as a hairdresser, and her tag-along husband (Steve Rowlands), pleading for restraint. Obviously soused and disorderly, Mrs. Daigle’s suspicions invite dismissal, until we and Christine have enough perspective to know better.
Anderson’s top asset of the Southern setting is Gothicism, beginning with Monica’s admission of incestuous feelings for her burly brother Emory (John Brackett). More frightening is the possibly perverted person of LeRoy, always knocking on the door when he’s not wanted. In a consistently scene-stealing performance, Dan Rowlands’ LeRoy keeps shadowing and cajoling Rhoda. He might be faking his insights, but his assurance convinces Rhoda that he knows her dirtiest secrets and tells her how she will be punished for them.
in only its second year, Encore Presentations is still a new kid on the
block, even while drawing upon a director and cast experienced with
other companies. This is Encore’s most assured production, with special
applause for technician Steve Beebe’s on-stage fire special effect.
This production runs through Oct. 29. See Times Table for information.