2004 Tony Award-Nominated Play!
by Bryony Lavery
directed by Oanh Nguyen
- 05/24/07 REVIEW: OC Register
- 05/29/07 REVIEW: What The Butler Saw
- 05/31/07 REVIEW: Back Stage West
- 06/01/07 REVIEW: Fullerton Observer
- More Press on The Chance
A 'Frozen' land of internal pain
Review: Realistic staging at Chance Theater shows the common ground among an unlikely trio
by Eric Marchese, OC Register
May 24, 2007
It can't be disputed that murder unalterably shifts the course of the victim's family's lives. Don't the killer's deeds affect his life, too? And after he's apprehended, what about those involved in the murder case - the police, the prosecutors, the court-appointed psychiatrists?
In a strange way, doesn't the act of murder intertwine the lives of killer, victim's family, and the various law- enforcement figures in their orbit, eternally bonding them, like it or not?
These are some of the questions raised by British playwright Bryony Lavery in her 2004 drama "Frozen." Remarkably, Lavery uses just three characters, who function as a sort of microcosm for the larger world of any heinous crime where, Dostoyevsky-like, retribution is only part of the equation.
A new staging by the Chance Theater, the second Orange County production of the drama to open in as many weeks, puts Lavery's skill on full display, showing us a world that's devoid of warmth. Rather than being creatures of enlightenment and self-understanding, Lavery's focal troika is reduced to instinct, pushing away from internal pain and toward the light in a story whose arc spans more than 20 years.
It's 1980, and a homicidal pedophile named Ralph Wantage sees a 10-year-old girl named Rona Shirley walking from her home to her grandmother's. He lures her into his van, kidnaps and sexually assaults her - then, like he did to his previous victims, he kills her, wraps her body in plastic and buries it.
We follow the results of Ralph's actions through a progression of scenes - at first, mostly monologues either directed at us or at other unseen characters and, later, as the characters interact.
Ralph, of course, is the catalyst, but the focal point is Rona's grieving mother, Nancy. The pivotal figure is Dr. Agnetha Gottmundsdottir, an American forensic psychiatrist whose research on serial killers brings her to England in the present day and to the heart of the Rona Shirley murder, where she links up with killer and mother alike.
It's no coincidence that the doctor's ancestry is Icelandic: Lavery links this fact to the play's focal metaphor, with the doctor as "an explorer of the Arctic sea of the criminal brain."
The doctor has also suffered an intense personal loss, making the course of the action in "Frozen" a harrowing psychological trial by fire for her as much as it is for Nancy and Ralph. She longs for answers that will give meaning to her life, hoping this murder case will help her find redemption.
Not all of "Frozen," which was nominated for four Tony Awards, is solemn. Biting humor alleviates much of the tension. Brilliantly, the play is able to evoke characters we never see - notably, Nancy's older daughter, who already felt neglected before her younger sister's abduction.
At the Chance, Oanh Nguyen's staging is a brisk, no-nonsense affair determined not to wallow in bathos. Nguyen balances all three characters while lending the material a sense of urgency. In his hands, the material speaks for itself. Considering the subject matter's nature, anything else would be overkill.
Casey Long augments Nguyen's realism with a sound scheme of kids playing, birds chirping, a jet engine's roar and, most tellingly, icy-cold winds. Nguyen's cast understands Lavery's aims and, via their director, how to get there.
Jonathon Lamer, who was so suave and commanding in the troupe's recent "Inventing Van Gogh," paints a portrait of an outwardly dull-witted truck driver who is seriously damaged goods.
The actor uses a soft Cockney dialect, and slow movements and speech, to mask his methodical character's rigid compulsions. His bravura work shows the killer coming apart at the seams as his motives are brought to light.
Seemingly a polished, typically eccentric Brit, Karen Webster's Nancy is a study in contrasts, a dignified woman of strong character whose grip on sanity is loosened by her daughter's cruel fate. Webster draws us inexorably into Nancy's living nightmare, showing her rueful sadness over the way tragedy has forced her life into an unwanted detour.
A statuesque, pale blonde, Jennifer Ruckman certainly looks the part of an American of Nordic heritage. More crucially, she credibly meshes the authority, curiosity, bright intellect and brusque persona of a scientist with the doctor's crying jags and lurking sense of panic. Like Lamer and Webster, Ruckman inhabits her role. Also like them, when the character's lid cracks, emotions flood out, making this "Frozen" complete.
by James Scarborough, What The Butler Saw
May 29, 2007
There’s no middle ground in Bryony Lavery’s harrowing Frozen at the Chance Theater.
Under Oanh Nguyen’s keen direction, illuminated with three jarring performances, staged on a stark set that belies the moral complexities of the roots of evil, this in-your-face production forces us to decide whether a murderer should be held accountable for his actions or if the act results from forces beyond his control.
Set mostly in England for twenty years beginning in 1980, it’s a compelling, riveting script: strong characters kaleidoscopically thrown into an unimaginable situation.
Lavery nicely contrasts between hot and cold; between victim and perpetrator: emotional, physical, and moral. She sets up a seemingly detached, rational person, a doctor cum mediator, who concludes that the perpetrator is not responsible for his actions.
Try telling that to Nancy Shirley (Karen Webster) who cannot get on with her life after the disappearance of her teenage daughter. She’s beside herself with grief: her gestures are erratic; her facial expressions are emphatic; and her voice is strained with anxiety.
She clings to a flame-flicker of hope while she’s frozen in the moment of her daughter’s disappearance; she can’t let go; she cleans her room, rearranges her things, in the hope that she would appear back on the front doorstep. Impassioned, she speaks out on behalf of missing children for an organization called FLAME, a label that also describes her state of mind.
Eventually the murderer, a serial killer, as it happens, is caught. Ralph Wantage (Jonathon Lamer) is apprehended and thrown in prison. His violence (and tatoos) belie the apparent coolness of his heinous deeds: he plans his crimes with method and precision; he parks his van nearby while he awaits a window of opportunity. He knows that time is on his side. Initially Lavery leads us to believe that he is guilty of premeditated assault and murder.
Then things cloud up.
Enter Agnetha Gottmundsdottir (Jennifer Ruckman), a New York doctor who travels to London to study the physical causes of evil. She’s just suffered her own loss: a married colleague with whom she had a fling had just been killed in an auto accident.
Clinically she believes that there are physical roots to evil and thus no victim-accountability although she doesn’t apply that line of thought to the death of her colleague; her grief rivals that of Nancy.
Excellent performances ensure that the confrontations – Nancy versus Ralph, Nancy versus Agnetha, and Agnetha versus Ralph –take your breath away.
Initially Lamer made Ralph so smug that you wanted to throttle him. Watch what happens when remorse read guilt sets in.
To the end Webster kept Nancy dignified and hopeful, which made the conclusion all the more sweet.
Agnetha was the most complex role and Ruckman nailed it; rational, as a doctor; impassioned, as a lover; and off the chart bonkers when the two roles crossed in that final exchange with Ralph.
Performances are 4 pm, Saturday, 6 pm, Sunday. The play runs until June 17. Tickets are $22-25. The Theater is located at 5552 E. La Palma Avenue, Anaheim. For more information call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.chancetheater.com/
by Eric Marchese, Back Stage West
May 31, 2007
The Weltanschauung of British playwright Bryony Lavery's 2004 drama is that of a cold, dark place where humans are reduced to creatures of instinct rather than enlightenment. The 1980 abduction of a 10-year-old British girl becomes the catalyst that unites the girl's killer, who has made it his life's mission to kidnap, sexually assault, and murder little girls; the girl's grieving mother; and an American forensic psychiatrist who has made the study of serial killers her life's work.
Lavery's schema is a series of brief scenes -- at first, monologues either directed at us or at other, unseen characters. Soon the American is in England in the present day, burrowing into the minds and hearts of mother and killer. For her, the case is personal: Her lifelong associate, who was briefly her lover, was killed suddenly in a car crash, making her bereft while searching for answers that will give meaning to his life. Director Oanh Nguyen approaches the text with objectivity, focusing on no one character in particular while lending the text a sense of urgency. He allows the material to speak for itself -- a wise choice in that, considering the subject matter, anything else is overkill.
Nguyen trusts his cast -- also a savvy move. Central to his staging is Jonathon Lamer as the homicidal pedophile Ralph, a seemingly normal Cockney lorry driver who is seriously damaged goods. As Nancy, the mother of the victim, Karen Webster lets us feel the character's living nightmare yet invests her with strength and dignity plus a rueful sadness toward the way the tragedy has forced change upon her, her husband, and their elder daughter who has always felt neglected. As the doctor, Jennifer Ruckman, a statuesque, pale blonde, combines authority with uncontrolled panic while introducing compassion -- the one element she, Ralph, and Nancy desperately need.
Presented by and at the Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim. Sat. 4 p.m., Sun. 6 p.m. May 13-Jun. 17. (714) 777-3033. www.chancetheater.com.
Frozen at The Chance
by Joyce Rosenthal, Fullerton Observer
June 1, 2007
A child is missing. Ten year old Rhona was sent on an errand to her grandmother’s house; she neither arrived there nor returned home. We subsequently learn that Rhona fell victim to a serial killer. How this act affects three dissimilar people is the subject of “Frozen” by Bryony Lavery at Chance Theater. Be warned - this is a dark, tough play to digest, however, the performances are absolutely riveting.
The play takes place in England and involves Rhona’s mother, the man who murdered her and an American psychiatrist researching serial killers. The story moves back and forth over the course of twenty years mainly through a series of talks delivered directly to the audience by each performer.
Rhona’s mother, Nancy Shirley, devastated from the day Rhona disappeared, still hopes Rhona will return one day. She organizes a group to look for missing children and mentions a successful case. After Rhona’s body and six others are discovered five years later in Ralph Wantage’s shed, her hope becomes hostility and rage and she keeps these feelings alive for the next fifteen years. Her other daughter begs her to let go of these feelings, forgive Ralph and get on with her life.
Ralph Wantage seems almost ordinary when we first meet him until his words sink in. He explains how he is always prepared to take advantage of every opportunity and shows us how he enticed his young victims into his van and shed. He shows no remorse regarding the murders but is upset because his expensive collection of child pornography tapes was destroyed during the search of his shed.
Twenty years after Rhona’s murder, Agnetha Gottmundsdottir, an American psychiatrist, is in London to deliver a paper to other psychiatrists. She theorizes that many serial killers commit crimes of illness rather than crimes of evil due to physical traumas they suffered in their childhood; interviews with Ralph are part of her research. Agnetha is trying to hide her suffering over the recent death of her research partner who was killed in an auto accident.
Is Agnetha’s theory valid? Suppose Ralph was a victim of child abuse which caused brain damage thus leaving him little control over his actions? Does this mitigate what he has done to the point where he can be forgiven? Will Nancy forgive Ralph so she can get on with her life?
Director Oanh Nguyen makes this play work using an almost bare stage designed by Masako Tobaru. He keeps us interested by having the players go up and down small flights of stairs, move various props and change costumes. The cast, Jonathon Lamer as Ralph, Jennifer Ruckman as Agnetha and Karen Webster as Nancy are well suited to their parts and perform admirably. Karen Webster gives an exceptionally strong performance as Nancy, revealing not only her flaws but also the strength she has to survive the loss of her child.