Even those of us old enough to remember early television presentations of the 1956 movie The Bad Seed might be surprised to learn that it was a well-received novel before Maxwell Anderson adapted it for the Broadway stage soon after its 1954 publication. So credit original author William March with a devilishly clever idea, and Anderson with a great script, which became the basis for the critically acclaimed film starring Patty McCormack, Nancy Kelly, Eileen Heckart and a veteran supporting cast.
Whatever the film's flaws — including a Hollywood-imposed "corrective" to the book's intentionally foreboding ending — it still proved entertaining to a wide audience, mainly because murder is a compelling theme, and murder committed by a conscienceless child even more so. Interestingly, McCormack was 10 years old when she first played the 8-year-old Rhoda Penmark, and lightning strikes twice in the new Street Theatre Company production titled Bad Seed, which features an amazingly poised 10-year-old Lucy Turner as the braided, blond-haired paragon of good behavior — who proves capable of killing to get a penmanship medal away from a classmate.
Congrats to producer-director Cathy Street for daring to select this moody '50s piece, which rarely surfaces these days. It's a surprising choice at first glance, if only because crime treatments have become so sophisticated and commonplace over the years. Furthermore, Bad Seed's slow-moving Southern ambience — the setting is Savannah, Ga., in 1950 — might threaten to dull us all to death at a running time close to three hours.
On the other hand, there's nothing better than a creepy period melodrama. By holding firmly to the play's earnest discussions of crime and criminality — particularly the impact of heredity versus environment — Street Theatre Company leads us into thoughtful behavioral territory, even as they touch on the script's potential as a campy potboiler.
No one could be blamed for preferring to simply sit back and soak in the story's fright factor, and thanks to Turner as the child-demon, this production certainly makes a success of that. She's supported well by Lisa Marie Wright as her distressed mother, Christine, who's the real protagonist here, charged with dealing with the problem at hand and, not unlike Hamlet, spurred into action, however painful the truth may be.
Linda Speir, meanwhile, gets tons of mileage out of her role as Monica Breedlove, the smarmy landlady who smokes cigarettes in the parlor and enjoys discussions of Freud and sexuality — and naively believes Rhoda is an angel.
Jeremy Maxwell also has fun with the role of Leroy, the Rhoda-baiting handyman who realizes too late that our anti-heroine is a freaking monster. In addition, Kay Ayers gives a strong cameo performance as the headmistress of Rhoda's school, deftly balancing her character's worst suspicions with the delicate politics of the situation.
The play's key dramatic role is Mrs. Daigle, a middle-age working-class woman whose only son is Rhoda's victim. Adele Akin takes it on with courage, mixing drunkenness with a forceful intuitiveness and a mother's desperate need for clarity. Or justice. Or anything to wake her from her nightmare. Like Heckart in the original film, Akin works the pathos and the poignance effectively.
The remaining players — Doug Allen, Alan Lee, Brad Oxnam, Rodney Pickel and Rob Wilds — provide solid efforts.
One key element that elevates the production a notch is composer/pianist Rollie Mains' original underscoring, which is played live throughout. This is a very smart add-on, and provides the creative Mains an avenue for accenting character, supporting action and commenting on the suspense, which he achieves with fluid restraint and occasional appropriate dissonances, while avoiding obvious musical clichés.
The costumes by Lynda Cameron-Bayer add a great deal to the period style, particularly to the image of Rhoda — the picture-perfect goody-two-shoes from hell. Meanwhile, Rich McCoy's nicely appointed set captures middle-class 1950 accurately.
If there's anything that threatens to dampen the theatrical glow of Bad Seed, it's the STC space's cooling system, which is noisy, if ultimately effective in doing its job. Some dialogue was lost on opening night, so actors will need to project accordingly.
Otherwise, this is entertaining theater on multiple levels and shouldn't disappoint anyone who digs crime tales, the macabre or an atmospheric jaunt back to a vintage era.
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