By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“She’s perfect perfect perfect,” grins Lilla Sólymos, cheerfully assessing the lethally goal-oriented little girl she plays in the 1954 thriller that returns to the Teatro La Quindicina repertoire Friday after 30 years. “And she uses that.”
Nicola Elbro plays her perfect perfect perfect ‘50s mother in The Bad Seed, scrambling to fortify herself against unwelcome suspicions about her kid in every scene. Elbro smiles thoughtfully. “When you don’t see the monster under the (perfect facade) it’s even scarier….”
As you might expect, the two cast-mates, who made time last week for a pre-rehearsal chat, have arrived in Maxwell Anderson’s chiller by different routes. Sólymos, who’s 12 and going into Grade 7 at Victoria School of the Arts, comes to Teatro from starring as the resourceful and feisty title character in the Citadel/ Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/ Arts Club production of the Broadway musical Matilda. Like nearly every adult in Matilda’s world, her mom and dad, pinhead comic grotesques, sell her short.
Toronto-based Elbro is making a rare return to theatre (and to the city of her theatre school alma mater, the U of A) for the juicy role of the beleaguered mother who grapples with a terrifying kid in this vintage psychological thriller. And here’s irony: Elbro works these days — “my Muggle job,” she says — as a “children’s grief councillor and play therapist.” The Bad Seed’s vision of childhood is a test case, almost a punch line, for both aspects of her work.
Rhoda “wouldn’t have benefited from any therapy, I don’t think,” laughs Elbro, whose last time onstage in Edmonton was as the yellow piano in a touring puppet production of Splash ‘N Boots.
Elbro was attracted to the show partly because of a lingering regret, leaving Edmonton for Toronto, that she’d never worked with Teatro. “I loved the writing. I loved the sense that they seemed like such a fun group of people.” All big draws for an actor made cautious about her chosen profession by “harassment and bullying” experiences in Toronto theatre.
Sólymos’s attraction to the production came via her Matilda cast-mate Andrew MacDonald-Smith, a Teatro artistic associate, who admired her quick wit and uncanny grasp of motivation. The hardest thing about being Matilda, who’s onstage for much the show? Solymos doesn’t hesitate: “It was so hard to keep a straight face around John!” (John Ullyatt, who played, in high comic style, the formidable head mistress Miss Trunchbull).
Sólymos, who saw Teatro’s recent premiere production of A Likely Story and before that, the Plain Janes’ Fun Home, has been enjoying the camaraderie of the Teatro ensemble. “They’ve all been really supportive. They help you, guide you.” Says Elbro, “they want to tell the story, and tell it really well. That’s the objective.”
With The Bad Seed, and the intriguing chance to be a villain, it was “Let’s try it! It’s a new challenge; we’ll see how I do!” says Sólymos, whose professional theatre debut was Tiny Tim in the Citadel’s now-retired production of A Christmas Carol. Needless to say, there will be no “God bless us, every one!” from the kid you’ll see starting Friday.
True, Rhoda does, er, dispatch people who stand between her and her goals, like the penmanship medal that classmate Claude wins, before he mysteriously vanishes on a school outing. But really, thinks Sólymos, murder per se is not Rhoda’s objective. It’s not so much a matter of evil, in all its stereotyped manifestations. For Rhoda “it’s simple logic.… She wants what she wants, and she’ll do anything to get it.” You can’t fault Rhoda for lack of focus.
Rhoda, incidentally, is eight. “I’ve always played young,” smiles Sólymos, who started dance training at age three. “I’ve never played anyone my age.” That gap didn’t prove problematic. For one thing, she says, “there’s a mature quality in Rhoda that makes her seem older than she is…. When she’s in a good mood, I try to make her younger; when she gets mad she acts more mature. She does what she has to do to get what she wants.”
It’s that kind of analysis that impresses her co-star Elbro. “Lilla is very smart…. She takes Stewart’s (director Stewart Lemoine’s) notes and acts on them right away. Faster than any of us. (Rhoda’s) transformations are very terrifying!”
“The focus, the maturity, the artistry Lilla has brought is pretty much mind-blowing. She’s the perfect scene partner!”
Environment vs. genetics, conditioning or DNA: that’s at the kernel, so to speak, of The Bad Seed. “Christine,” says Elbro, “has offered this loving home, the perfect nuclear family, the perfect environment….” The Bad Seed is “a portrait of the period: she doesn’t have the option to go get a job or explore the world. Her only option is to be a model mother; it’s the one thing she’s meant to do.” And in the course of the play, the gleaming surfaces of that idealized ‘50s family get harder and harder to maintain. “It’s so isolating; she’s so alone!”
It’s that plight, a woman trapped in a home and a vision of family that’s gradually becoming a prison, that intrigued Teatro’s Lemoine enough to take up the thriller again after three decades. He understands it in a different way now. “The last time we did it, it was a stylish piece on the verge of being funny.” People, after all, “are amused to see a child that wicked.”
“There’s an enjoyable edge of thriller, mounting dread,” he says of his continuing attraction to the play. “There’s fun, witty dialogue — erudite people saying amusing things about Freud….” For a company that specializes in comedy in all its expansive possibilities, it’s an intriguing choice, he thinks. “It has the energy of a comedy” even if it doesn’t wear that mantle.
And as for Christine, says Lemoine, “hers is such an interesting predicament. She’s an investigator of a crime, but a protector of the perpetrator.”
The Bad Seed
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written by: Maxwell Anderson
Directed by: Stewart Lemoine
Starring: Nicola Elbro, Lilla Sólymos, Jeff Haslam, Andrea House, Cathy Derkach, Mark Bellamy, Kristi Hansen, Mat Busby
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Friday through July 27