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Raising Pain

Excellent production of a portrait of a serial killer

Stephanie Ranno interviews Frank Vince.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 6/24/2009


By Bryony Lavery

Through July 5 at Spotlighters Theatre

After watching Spotlighters Theatre's production of Bryony Lavery's Frozen, it's not surprising that the play was nominated for a Tony in 2004. What is surprising, at least to community-theater skeptics, is that this Spotlighters' production lives up to the play's vast potential, creating a night of theater likely to stick with its audience long after the bows have been taken.

Frozen is a story of unfathomable pain and loss. Nancy Shirley (Debbie Bennett) has two daughters, willful Ingrid and sweet Rona. When Rona disappears at just 10 years old, Nancy forms an organization to find missing children. When it turns out that Rona was raped and murdered by a serial killer, she turns her organization's focus to notifying communities about pedophiles in their midst.

If Frozen ended there, it would be your standard Lifetime movie fare, sad but unexceptional. Instead, Lavery's play also takes on the murderer's perspective. Scenes that lead up to and follow Rona's murder as experienced by Nancy are juxtaposed with how Ralph Wantage (Frank Vince) experienced it. Ralph sees himself as the perpetually persecuted victim, with every slight intolerable to him. His murder of children is not an act of violence but almost one of organization.

A third character, Agnetha Gottmundsdotir (Stephanie Ranno), allows the audience to investigate what makes Ralph a monster. Agnetha is a forensic psychiatrist studying the mind of murderers. Her thesis is called "Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?"--an idea, in many ways, that is the central question of this story.

Frozen is the kind of play that reminds you what the purpose of theater is. The story would not have the same power as a novel, where too much of the character's thinking would likely be revealed, or a movie, where grisly realism could only dull its impact. As a play, it is both intimate and unknowable, putting you face to face with the characters' pain and making you struggle with the same issues they do, because we can never truly understand why such a despicable act would occur.

I remember Bennett from a 2000 production of What a Man Weighs at Fells Point Corner Theatre, in which I described her as "fine" and "flat." Here she is an absolute revelation as Nancy, her performance grounded and moving. Her role is difficult; she must portray not just herself but her daughters and husband, creating Nancy's entire world on an almost bare stage. She also has to move seamlessly from devastation to anger, from laughter to tears, from hope to despair, in almost every scene. And Bennett does it masterfully. Her emotions never feel less than real.

Frank Vince has an equally daunting task. He has to portray a serial-killing pedophile without turning him into a cartoon villain. Vince proves up to the challenge. His Ralph is disturbing but never over the top, providing shades and colors to a character that could easily have come off as one-note.

Stephanie Ranno does a good job as the psychiatrist but her character doesn't resonate in the same way. As a tool for understanding Ralph, Agnetha is a pivotal character, but the play loses some heat when it focuses on her problems, which can't help but appear trivial next to Frozen's central tragedy.

Michael Spellman's direction is excellent. He makes good use of the Spotlighters' odd little theater in the round space. The setting heightens the play's sense of intimacy, and the simple set--a few chairs and table--provide little distraction.

If there is a misstep in this production it's the make-up. Crystal Soverski has impressive credentials as a make-up artist, but Ralph's tattoos look like stick-ons. Not only are they shiny but they aren't integrated together in a realistic way. People with lots of tattoos rarely have them spaced far apart; they tend to flow into each other. It's a minor quibble but in a production this strong, it's a shame to see anything bring it down.

The other concern is that while Frozen does a good job of explaining a theory of why serial killers' commit heinous acts -- that it is based on brain trauma caused by their own abuse -- it presents it in such a way that suggests that all victims of abuse are invariably and permanently broken, destined to be amoral criminals. An idea that given the unfortunate pervasiveness of abuse -- nearly 700,000 children are abused annually in the United States -- doesn't bear out. Still, Frozen tackles the issue of what makes a serial killer and what impact murder has on the lives of others in a powerful way, providing no easy answers.

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