Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Bad Seed"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by Maxwell Anderson, based on the novel by William March
directed by Paul Conroy

Rhoda Penmark … Rebecca Stevens
Kenneth Penmark … Peter Martin
Christine Penmark … Nicole Meinhart
Mr. Daigle … Jim Skypeck
Mrs. Daigle … Christine Power
Richard Bravo … Edwin Beschler
Emory Wages … Jesse Martin
Monica Breedlove … Leslie Talbot
Reggie Tasker … Jim Taber
Miss Fern … Deidre Wade
Leroy … Danny Harris

Eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark, the angelic-looking murderess of Maxwell Anderson’s BAD SEED, has long been considered a Camp icon (largely due to the now-risible 1956 film version) so that today’s whoops and catcalls tend to drown out the fact that Mr. Anderson’s play, based on the genuinely creepy William March novel is, in its heart of hearts, a domestic tragedy: Rhoda’s mother Christine is torn between maternal love and a social conscience: Rhoda will go on killing if left unchecked, yet this is her only child…. The Footlight Club production proves there is no need to send up BAD SEED; despite its horrors, it has its own dark humor: Rhoda is a built-in parody of the Little Princess syndrome, deceiving many with her perfect manners and immaculate dresses; her scenes with Leroy, the sly handyman who is not deceived, are actually quite funny --- he is forever getting her goat; in the end, she cooks his goose. Mr. Anderson’s play creaks with melodramatic devices: the suffering Christine is right out of the gaslight era (“My child! My child!” she should wail, beating her breast) and the nosey landlady repeatedly demonstrates what a dusting scene is all about; there is also an abundance of psychological rationalizing similar to what movie scientists do before being destroyed by monsters in the next scene --- but once the gloves are off between mother and daughter, BAD SEED becomes gripping entertainment down to the O. Henry-style ending that is not at all like the one in the bowdlerized film.

Despite its Christine sporting a New Look dress in her opening scenes, the Footlight production is set in recent times (a boy’s drowning is reported in a television broadcast rather than on the radio, as written); the evening takes a while to warm up due to the still-green supporting cast, but Edwin Beschler is a gentle stand-out as Christine’s father who confirms her worst suspicions about her own past (Mr. Beschler beautifully suggests the man’s failing health by his lifting Rhoda off the floor in greeting by only a few inches) and Christine Power enjoyably hams her way through the sure-fire role of Mrs. Daigle, the alcoholic mother of the drowned boy (last season, Penny Champagne moved Ramrod audiences by playing the character, straight (!)). The Footlight’s Rhoda is not camped, thank you, being played by a child actress, but Danny Harris turns Leroy into a drawling, swivel-hipped hoot, getting lusty laughter for his pains --- his interpretation doesn’t throw the production off-balance as Leroy is meant to be touched in the noggin (I expected this Leroy to refer to Rhoda as “Miss Thang”).

In Gloucester Stage’s recent production of SPINNING INTO BUTTER, a cheery, out-going actress was cast in the lead which added poignancy to growing revelations of her own racism. The casting of Nicole Meinhart, a thin, intense-looking woman, as Christine dilutes the role’s impact as Christine is praised and described throughout as being warm, loving, a wonderful wife and mother, etc. Ms. Meinhart’s Christine is high-strung and haunted from the start, clearly disturbed by her recurring dream (twice she erupts in violence, herself); Ms. Meinhart is in the clear when Christine finally cracks, ending in an eerie calm, yet I can’t help feeling that, instead of running the gamut, she has only moved from “A” to “B”. Fortunately, Rebecca Stevens’ Rhoda is a smashing success, from her rope-braids down to her shoes with the tell-tale cleats. As directed, her cold frankness keeps Rhoda from being a mere brat with a nasty temper and she is fascinating when being tormented by Mr. Harris’ Leroy, her doll-mask filling with bored contempt; when this Rhoda finally calls Leroy's bluff and pursues him, her murderous fury fills the room to frightening effect. Little Rhoda may be up there with Auntie Mame and Baby Jane Hudson, but Ms. Stevens demonstrates that this devil-child can still send chills after all these decades.


"Bad Seed" (17 September-2 October)
7A Eliot Street, JAMAICA PLAIN, MA
1 (617) 524-3200

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide