By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
That angelic smile. That impeccable posture. Those unassailably perfect braids.…
“Too good to be true,” someone says admiringly of eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark near the start of The Bad Seed. It’s meant to be the ultimate compliment.
The unlimited potential of the “ideal child,” to achieve, to acquire, to decapitate resistance and incinerate skepticism gets a chilling demonstration in the 1954 Maxwell Anderson thriller that’s back at Teatro La Quindicina after three decades.
And, in Stewart Lemoine’s production, built on incremental unease, it’s fascinating to watch the startling 12-year-old actor Lilla Sólymos as Rhoda as she negotiates the separation of smarts and human empathy. Timely and judicious applications of child-like charm and innocence are Rhoda’s specialty. Appeals to adult sentimentality about parenthood and the family, she knows innately, are the perfect antidote to … well, truth.
Rhoda is an actor, as Sólymos’s alert and detailed performance conveys with every toss of a braid, every jaunty sashay out the door with a shrewd backwards glance, every curtsy and arrangement of a crinolined skirt. Her theatre is so ‘50s. And so now.
Based on a disturbing William March novel, the play and this suspenseful Teatro production, conjures a world of middle-class surfaces: loving spouses, adorable offspring, helpful neighbours. And the discoveries belong to Rhoda’s loving mother Christine, in a beautifully calibrated performance with a period cadence from Nicola Elbro, making a welcome return to Edmonton.
The crux is a mysterious drowning on a school picnic. The deceased? A little boy who has won a penmanship medal coveted by Rhoda. Christine’s escalating apprehension, which frames the play and gradually seeps into every encounter, intensifies into horrifying suspicions about her perfect little daughter, who gets 100 in “deportment” every month at school.
And that’s about where I should stop telling you about the plot. Except to say that everything in Christine’s world, which unfolds in knocks at the door and phone calls, is a suspense-enhancer. It embraces the tightly wound purse-lipped teacher (Kristi Hansen) who has her doubts about the “official” version of the death, the sly and abrasive handyman who tends to lurk (Mat Busby), the gabby cheerfully Freud-obsessed neighbour Monica (engagingly played by Cathy Derkach). “I know I shouldn’t take things into my all-too-capable hands.”
There’s even a crime writer, Mark Bellamy as Reginald, and in the person of Christine’s father Richard Bravo (Jeff Haslam), an eminent crime journalist who used to write murder mysteries. And The Bad Seed gives them the forum to argue about the nature of sociopathic killers, with their incapacity for remorse or moral choices. “They imitate humanity beautifully,” proposes the writer Reginald Tasker (Bellamy), who compares them to wax rosebuds. Richard Bravo is nervously evasive. Is it possible for chilldren in lovely households to be murderous criminals? Is heredity the decisive factor?
The drunk mother of the dead boy arrives — a melodramatic part that’s arguably written with a little too much drunk unravelling attached to it. She’s a lurid, tragic portrait of disintegration in the accusatory no-holds-barred performance from Andrea House: “you know more than you’re telling.”
Chantal Fortin’s design, lit by Daniela Masellis, conjures the reassuring domestic symmetries of the ‘50s nuclear middle-class family. Leona Brausen’s vintage costumes, with their snazzy suits and dresses, don’t just conjure the period, but nail it. Rhoda, who wears a series of starchy and ravishing little girl frocks, is kitted out like Alice of Wonderland fame. And for a child with her instincts for presentation, out in a world full of things she wants, that’s about right.
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: through July 27