Okay, so I’m already notorious for my conflicts of interest as a reviewer but this one may break all records. Not only is Frozen an Extra Event in the Theatre at UBC season (I’m Head of the Department of Theatre and Film that produces that season), but I’m actually IN the play as a video cameo. Oh, and one of the actors (Andrew Lynch) is a student in the department, though he has no lines. Another—Deb Pickman, one of the leads--works for us as department publicist.
That said, I’ll try (as usual) to be as objective as possible in my assessment of the play and production. I liked them both, the production a little more than the play, which I found slightly disappointing. British playwright Bryony Lavery’s script comes with a lot of hype, and its subject matter—the murder (and probable rape) of a child and the mother’s forgiveness of her child’s murderer—sets the expectation bar extremely high. I found it fascinating in places, muddled in others, and a little anticlimactic.
Renee Iaci’s shameless hussy production is pretty sharp overall, with some strong design elements—especially Stephen Bulat’s original music—and very good acting, led by Anthony F. Ingram’s tour de force performance as the severely disturbed pedophile serial killer, Ralph.
The play begins as a series of independent monologues delivered by Nancy (Daune Campbell), the mother of 11-year-old Rhona, who has gone missing; Ralph, the weirdo whom we gradually understand is kidnapping and killing young girls; and Agnetha (Deb Pickman), an American psychologist investigating the relationship between abusive childhoods, psychoses, and pedophilia. As twenty years pass, Ralph is arrested and jailed, Nancy learns that he killed her daughter, and the characters begin talking to each other. The psychologist interviews Ralph and Nancy, and Nancy finally meets her daughter’s murderer in the play’s climactic scene.
As Nancy, Campbell has some huge emotional burdens to carry. We watch her deal with the initial horrors of her daughter’s disappearance, the faint, desperate hope for her return, and the dawning awareness that Rhona is probably dead. Then she has to deal with her feelings for the killer. Nancy tells us about her other daughter, who develops a kind of Zen attitude towards life and eventually convinces Nancy to let go of her anger and try to forgive the killer. The fact that we never get to meet either daughter means there’s an awful lot of telling and little showing—except for the emotional shows of grief, rage, and grudging understanding that Campbell manages with real skill.
Agnetha is the play’s most problematic character, providing the rather obvious clinical arguments that abused children become abusive adults and that a killer suffering from psychosis is not entirely responsible for what he does. On top of that, Lavery gives her an offstage lover who has died, so that Agnetha too gets to express grief and anger. Pickman gives the character a nice variety of emotional responses, including humour, but I found the offstage drama (even though I played the offstage lover!) a dramatic red herring.
At the centre of this production is Ingram’s remarkable Ralph—scarily quiet and twitchy and capable of violent outbursts, obsessive (he has to touch all four corners of a table top before he can sit down at it), and repetitive (“obviously,” he says about almost everything, in his regional accent). Ingram makes him the most convincingly human character in the piece, certainly the most compelling, and in some ways almost as sympathetic as Nancy. It’s a fabulous piece of acting.
Frozen (a metaphor vividly built into Lauchlin Johnston’s set design but redundantly over-articulated by the character of Agnetha) provocatively explores some profound ethical and emotional issues, though not always in profound ways. This production gives full value to the onstage human drama.