Chilling Drama on Goshen Stage

“Frozen” is the title of the three character (plus one silent prison guard) drama by Bryony Lavery which opened Friday evening in Goshen’s New World Arts theater. It also is an apt description of the atmosphere engendered by the plot which deals with a terrifying and unthinkable subject.

A 10-year-old girl sets out for her grandmother’s house but never arrives. For years, her mother agonizes over the loss and is haunted by not knowing the how and why of her disappearance.

A serial killer pedophile is caught and imprisoned for life.

An American psychiatrist comes to England to complete work on her thesis: “Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?”

Inevitably their lives touch and, eventually, each finds his/her own solution.

A series of monologues in Act 1 provides the background on the crime and on the individuals involved. In Act 2 they come together in duologues.

Nancy (Leah Borden) relives the day she sent her youngest daughter Rhona off to grandmother’s house. She suffers from acute stress-related headaches. Years later she still is searching for answers and hoping Rhona is alive. Ralph (Jim Jones in a disturbingly chilling performance) relives his crimes from his prison cell and declares he has no remorse. Agnetha (Brittany Gardner-Kennel) is suffering her own loss but deals with her topic in a stoically clinical manner, determined to retain her objectivity. Eventually, however, she is the unwilling bridge between criminal and victim.

Frozen  New World Arts  Goshen“Frozen” deals with a subject — and a premise — that is difficult to absorb. Abnetha’s question as to whether Ralph’s actions were “a crime of evil or a crime of illness” has no definitive answer. Were the killings sins or symptoms? Does he deserve forgiveness? His description of a happy childhood is, like his rationale for killing, a figment of his imagination.

After years of freezing herself from any other emotional contacts, and against the psychiatrist’s orders, Nancy finally gives in to her older daughter’s insistent pleas. She confronts Rhona’s killer and forgives him. He, in turn, faces the reality of his actions after her visit.

Borden’s Nancy goes from guilt to acceptance with little sign of emotional change. Gardner-Kennel is all scientist but could use a little more authority in her lectures. Both need more severe hairstyles, at least at the beginning.

Jones, who has played the role before, is a master of twitching fingers, rolling eyes, nodding head and shaking limbs. He is both an object of revulsion and someone to be pitied. It is impossible to look away from him, like the accident you don’t want to stare at but from which you can’t look away. (Except Brian Kozlowski as the Prison Guard who also serves by standing and waiting but never says a word.)

Director Adrienne Nesbitt has opted to cover the stage and set pieces with white sheets, which individual actors eventually remove little by little as the story progresses. I assume it is to represent the melting of frozen minds and hearts. Unfortunately it more resembles taking down the wash.

“FROZEN” plays at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and Oct. 21-22 in the theater at 211 S. Main Street, Goshen (entrance from South Third Street). Tickets at the door or call 1 (800) 838-3006. For information visit www.newworldarts.org. 

Birthday Celebration Is Explosive

Four generations of African-American women come together to celebrate the 90th birthday of the family matriarch in the South Bend Civic Theatre production of Cheryl L. West’s comedy/drama “Jar the Floor,” which opened Friday evening in the Warner Studio Theatre.

To say that several familiar topics are covered during the 2 ½ hour (plus intermission) party, which is much more confrontation than celebration, is a major understatement. Rather ask if there is one that has been left out. Knowing that the play is more than two decades old is one answer. Possibly lesbianism, sexual abuse, breast cancer and single parenthood were fresh topics in the early 1900s. Today they have been chewed over in both comedies and dramas and “Jar The Floor” offers little fresh insight.

In this production’s defense, however, the cast assembled by directors Kevin Dryer and Consuela H. Wilson, does its best to hit the high — and low — notes with convincing if repetitious aim.

The characters assembled in the suburban Chicago home of MayDee (Eula Milon) are her grandmother MaDear (Nora Batteast), who now lives with MayDee, her mother Lola (Laverne McMutuary), and her daughter Vennie (Kelly Morgan). An unexpected addition to the guest list is Raisa (Nicole Brinkmann Reeves), Vennie’s white girlfriend.

Money, men and the disinterring of old wounds are among the most frequent conversational trends as the party progresses. MaDear goes in and out of awareness waiting for the arrival of her son, who she mistakenly insists is a doctor, and for her long-dead husband to “jar the floor” to signify his other-worldly presence.

Unlike Lola, her no-holds-barred, life-of-the-party mother, MayDee rigidly controls her emotions. She is tensely awaiting the arrival of her daughter and a call that may — or may not — signal her receiving tenure.

Lola, whose continual failure to find a good man, has a casual attitude that involves drinking and dancing and grates obviously on her controlling sister. This conflict erupts periodically as the question of what to do with increasingly senile MaDear heads to the surface along with MayDee’s worry that Vennie has too many close female friends and too few boyfriends.

When the young girl arrives with Raisa, a breast cancer survivor who faces her illness by offering to display her mastectomy and shouting “Cancer” as often and as loudly as possible, Vennie’s announcement that she is not continuing her education in favor of pursuing a singing career is, as they say, the straw that blows the lid off her mother’s repressed emotions, which leads to more explosive confrontations.

The scars of all the women, physical and emotional, become apparent throughout the evening. The script, however, says little about them that has not been said frequently before. It’s effectiveness would be increased substantially by judicious cutting. Less still is more.

McMutuary commands center stage most often and her Lola is a tragic/comic figure which she interprets well — and loudly. Batteast’s volume is considerably lower but her soft asides during the family free-for-alls are well-aimed zingers that hit their mark with well-deserved laughter.

David Chudzynski’s set design includes the first floor of the home, plus an outside garden, and is an excellent example of the way in which the black box theater space can be utilized in more ways than just in the round.

“JAR THE FLOOR” plays at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the theater at 403 N. Main St. For reservations call 234-1112 or on line at www.sbct.org