Frozen: Thawing the past

The School of Drama has maintained a long-standing tradition of interpreting and staging works in startling and innovative ways. This past week’s presentation of Frozen — written by British playwright Bryony Lavery and directed by Robert May, a senior drama major — was no exception to this tradition.

The storyline of Frozen revolves around two central figures — a pedophiliac serial killer named Ralph, and Nancy, the mother of one of Ralph’s victims (Rhona, who is never actually seen in the play). Exploring the concepts of human connections, forgiveness, and “frozen” emotions, the performance moves along through direct address, where the story is told through monologues by each of the three characters (the third is a supporting character, Agnetha, a professor researching the minds of serial killers). Ralph, Nancy, and Agnetha were played by three junior drama majors — Michael McKee, Emily Rossell, and Tro Shaw, respectively.

Primarily, Frozen examines the human tendency to gravitate, linger, and feed off fueling emotions (such as vengeance). Each of the play’s characters experiences emotional standstills — Nancy wants vindication for her daughter’s death, Ralph can’t comprehend the wrongs of his actions, Agnetha is pining for her recently deceased — though when alive, very married! — colleague. Unfortunately, despite Ralph’s twisted, “serial killer” personality, the moral core of the story felt clichéd. The play’s messages, such as “forgive and move on,” were less than engaging due to their general ubiquity.

More original was the presence of science in the script, which was evidently aimed toward an educated audience. Facts about cortisol’s destructive properties to the brain in high amounts — or the size disparities between the brains of normal people and those of serial killers — help make the story more cohesive. Shaw’s clean voice delivered one of the play’s best lines: “The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom,” she says, describing Ralph’s inability to recognize his actions as wrong.

While the language of Frozen was beautiful — particularly during Nancy’s monologues — and each character demonstrated convincingly independent attributes through speech patterns, the establishments of character couldn’t finish the story. Ralph’s repetitions of the word “obviously,” and his echoing choruses of “hello, hello, hello,” Nancy’s descriptive, anecdotal manner of speaking, and Agnetha’s abrupt, high-strung way of talking about Ralph all added richness to the play, but were not enough to push the action toward closure.

The frustrating lack of conflict resolution was rooted mostly in Nancy’s final decision to forgive Ralph for his murder and sexual violation of Rhona, which comes after Nancy is somehow able to get Ralph to understand the pain he must have caused her daughter. Neither Nancy’s slide toward forgiveness nor Ralph’s induced understanding of his crime were adequately addressed in the script. Nancy’s decision was abrupt, and Ralph’s understanding shouldn’t have been possible if he was truly a “serial killer” (as far as the basic rules of the story went). While the actions in themselves gave closure to the plot — and tied in nicely with the banal messages of the production — the transition of emotion from frozen anger to thawed forgiveness, of cold ignorance to painful understanding, was not well documented and did not allow for full satisfaction within the bounds of the story.

The interpretation of the play, however, was extremely well executed and did wonders with what proved to be a difficult script — consisting of many intertwined monologues and relatively little dialogue — and a difficult story, with clichéd moral admonitions and difficult characters to portray. The production emphasized how each character progressed through his or her specific emotional spectrum rather than dwelling on the message or story, which allowed for greater audience investment.

Central to the scheme of the play was the set. Upstage center was a platform (which alternately served as a “lock-up box” for Ralph’s obsessions and victims, Ralph’s jail cell, and later as Nancy’s grave for Rhona). The rest was sprinkled with cragged rock clusters colored in somber grays, symbolic of the overarching theme of the play — the emoting forces that made humans become frozen, stuck, trapped. This non-traditional and almost spartan set design was implemented to underscore another important theme of the story — the concept of a world in healing. Brushes of light within the set’s dark colors embodied the characters’ hopeful transformations.

The performances were strong on the parts of all three actors, in particular that of Rossell, who played Nancy. She delivered each of her lines with exactly the right amount of emotional magnitude, and her voice fell and rose in perfect rhythm with the language of the script. The most striking part of Rossell’s performance was how genuinely her eyes gleamed when she spoke of Rhona, and her stage presence was almost unbearable in the tragic aura she exuded as her perspective filled the room.

Frozen concludes with the suicide of Ralph, unable to deal with his newfound comprehension of the suffering he’s caused. Nancy attains the desire she’s harbored for two decades — Ralph’s death — despite her forgiveness. Agnetha, who started out alone, has made a sort of friend in Nancy, and she decides not to tell the wife of her deceased partner about her affair. Under May’s skilled direction, Frozen was given a solid performance that captured the emotional journeys of each of its characters.