by Terrance Mc Arthur
The Bad Seed is a phrase, title, or story that has been seared into society’s awareness since 1954—almost 80 years. If you really want to understand it, see the play by that name at the Good Company Players’ 2nd Space Theatre through June 11.
Nature versus Nurture? A question popular in the mid-20th century. Can a person be born evil through heredity, or is it the product of environmental factors? William March pondered that question, and he wrote a novel about it. A month after it was published in 1954, he died. Maxwell Anderson wrote a play version, and it was on Broadway before the end of that year. The 1956 film earned Oscar nominations. Remakes in 1985 and 2018.
Rhoda Penmark (Campbell Sloas, alternating with Finley Van Vleet) is a perfect child, it seems: precocious, obedient, polite. It’s so sad that one of her classmates, Claude Daigle, accidentally drowned during a school picnic—a boy who won the penmanship medal she thought she deserved. Did she have something to do with his death? What happened to the medal the boy had won? What caused the strange marks on his face?
Col. Penmark (Michael Peterson), Rhoda’s father, has been called to Washington, DC, leaving his wife, Christine Penmark (Amalie Larsen) to deal with the school principal (Sylvia Sloas), who has concerns about the girl. On top of that, Mr. and Mrs. Daigle (Robert Sanchez and Renee Newlove) want to question Rhoda, the last person to see Claude alive.
On Christine’s side is the building’s landlady, Monica (Annette Smurr), an amateur psychologist, and Monica’s brother (John Sloas). Another friend of the family (Brian Rhea) is an author specializing in sensational crime, and Christine turns to him about criminal behavior. Mother’s intuition and troubling dreams that might be memories, cause Christine to question her ancestry, asking her father (Noel Adams), a famed journalist, questions that create more questions.
Then there’s Leroy (Billy Anderson), the building’s peculiar janitor-handyman, who thinks he knows all about little Rhoda, but she knows a lot about him.
This is a scary, unsettling horror-thriller that comes loaded with triggers that can disturb audience members. Themes of violence and self-harm make this evening a rough ride, but it’s worth it—an E ticket that creeps up on you.
Campbell performed the first weekend, and she is scheduled for Fridays and Sundays for the rest of the play’s run. Her hair is perfect, her clothes are perfect, her actions are perfect. Her smile is…too perfect. From the wild child she played in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever to this calculating tot is quite a leap, but she sticks the landing.
Amalie delivers the most harrowing performance I have ever seen her give, going from a near-Stepford-Wives calm to a woman facing truths she is not prepared to face, almost-Rosemary’s-Baby horrifying. This disintegration, while Rhoda calmly dismisses responsibility, piles on another layer of wrongness to the proceedings.
Annette brings a Dixie Carter style to Monica, cheerily psychoanalyzing other characters and diagnosing them with horrible neuroses and psychoses. She firmly places the setting in the American South. John is a good ol’ boy, more interested in fishing than in deep thoughts, but tolerant of Monica’s quirks.
Renee staggers under the weight of Mrs. Daigle’s grief at the loss of her son, a loss that drives the character into the nearest alcohol bottle. She’s emotional, blowsy, driven, out of her element among people she sees as her betters. It is a performance nuanced in its broadness. Robert’s Mr. Daigle does not know how to control his wife’s obsessive reactions, yet he shows a subtle strength.
Sylvia, as Miss Fern, one of the owners of the private school, seems more concerned about the loss of prestige the school might experience than the tragic demise of one of her students. Her plan of action is to cut her losses and remove anyone who doesn’t fit in her idea of a well-ordered world. Brian is cultured, erudite, and filled with information about the underworld of the psyche as the friendly criminalist. Noel is more controlled than his Uncle Chris in I Remember Mama, a man of caring, burdened with secrets.
Billy appears uncultured in a “My name is Larry. This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl” way. He is slimy, but he doesn’t really know the danger that a provoked little girl can be.
Karan Johnson directed with a sure hand, leading the cast and audience into the undiscovered country.
David Pierce’s set has a slight bend to the ends, giving a claustrophobic closeness. Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes are oh-so 50s, and Rhoda’s dresses evoke all those McCall’s and Simplicity patterns you see in the attic. The lighting by Joielle Adams (with Andrea Hendrickson) creates a macabre aura with momentary flashes of red that barely have time to register.
This show will get to you, take you places where you don’t belong. The Bad Seed is playing at the same time as The Visalia Players are presenting Sweeney Todd. Both plays are filled with evil. Todd is in-your-face violence from the beginning, but Seed delicately builds like an Alfred Hitchcock film, moment by moment. For my money, The Bad Seed is the scarier one.
The 2nd Space Theatre is at 928 E. Olive Ave, in Fresno. For tickets and further information, contact www.gcplayers.com, or call (559) 266-9494.
The Bad Seed addendum: Finley is cute and cuddly, which brings a different kind of evil to the role of Rhoda. Her anger and rage seems a simple tantrum until the facts of her actions sink into your brain. It’s a different approach, but it still gets to you. She is developing strongly as a performer.
Things I noticed on a second visit to The Bad Seed, so I could write reviews of both little-girl sociopaths—
· Michael Peterson as Rhoda’s father—paternal, playful, and military in the first act, shattered in the second act.
· Vintage magazines—Look and Collier’s—laying out on a settee, giving a touch of 1950’s authenticity.
If you love local theatre, be sure to check out Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors. You can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, and also on podbean.
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