by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
St. Augustine’s Limelight Theatre has opened Maxwell Anderson’s THE BAD SEED. It will be on stage in the Koger-Gamache Black Box Theatre until November 24 at 11 Old Mission Street. Call 904-825-1164 or visit www.limelight-theatre.org for reservations.
In 1958 in the musical “Gigi,” French singer Maurice Chevalier’s song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” became a hit, with lyrics that included “. . . Those little eyes so helpless and appealing, One day will flash and send you crashing through the ceiling.”
Mr. Chevalier obviously never met the seemingly sweet, charming and well mannered eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark, central character of “The Bad Seed.” Anderson’s play, a dramatization of a novel by William March, opened on Broadway in 1954 and ran for 332 performances. It was considered for a Pulitzer but lost out to “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” It was later made into a film with Nancy Kelly and Patty McCormick repeating their stage roles. If you have seen the movie that pops up now and then on cable, please note that the ending was constructed to conform to the constraints of the Hays Code and is quite different from Maxwell’s play.
The plot is about the tragedy of a mother who comes to realize her daughter’s culpability in the cold-blooded deaths of others, but continues to love her and goes to the extremes to protect her.
All the action takes place in an apartment with vintage furnishings in an older home in a Southern city, where Colonel Penmark lives with his wife and young daughter. The play makes no reference to any events of the time, so the script is not dated but you know it is in the early 50s when the characters depend on the radio for news and receive an important message by telegram (delivered in a cameo role by ARIANA MEO who is also the production’s Stage Manager and Set Designer).
Rhoda, our cute and darling little girl, was played by eleven-year old ELLA ROMAINE who captured the child’s ruthless self-centered persona, lacking any capacity for guilt or remorse. When you see the show this role may be played by KYLER UNSWORTH, who we understand did the role on the previous night and was also outstanding in her portrayal.
MARIA HELFRICH as Christine gives a convincing performances as the distraught mother who must face the fact that her child is a monster. Her performance was flawless. Ms. Helfrich certainly had a demanding rehearsal schedule for this production, as there were two actresses who had to prepare separately for Rhoda’s role.
There are a number of good performances from this large cast. BARBARA EVENS is Mrs. Daigle, a woman who turns to heavy drinking after the suspicious drowning death of her eight-year old son, an only child. Shortly before he died, her dead son happened win a scholarship medal that Rhonda felt she deserved to win, and she insists that Christine knows more about the circumstances leading to his death than she is telling.
Jacksonville actor and Limelight regular PATRIC ROBINSON gives a performance filled with tension as Leroy, the mean and perhaps simpleminded janitor. However, he has more insights into Rhoda’s character than others, and their scenes together will have you on the edge of your seat.
SHELLI LONG is a well-known North Florida music director and pianist but has found time to do four plays with Limelight in the past several years. She is Monica Breedlove, the landlady and amateur psychologist with a motor mouth, who provides much of the humor in this play.
JOSEPH STEARMAN is Colonel Kenneth Penmark, Rhoda’s father who is stationed in Washington, and is frequently away from home but is obviously mesmerized by his beloved daughter.
DAVID WILLLIAMS is Mr. Daigle, father of the dead boy and the apologetic caregiver of his distraught, grieving wife. RICH NOWELL as Reginald Tasker, a friend of the Penmarks who writes crime fiction, stirs Christine’s fears with his dissertations on murder. SUSAN FERRY is Miss Fern, Rhoda’s suspicious teacher. DAVE LEVINE appears as Emory Wages, the landlady’s brother. The final character who rounds out the cast is FRANK RICCARDO, Christine’s father, who had a successful high profile career as a reporter, and has concealed a chilling secret.
BETH LAMBERT did an exceptional bit of casting as well as direction, capturing the true feelings of the characters. The black box stage is so intimate that if you are sitting in a front row seat you are practically a cast member.
Production Manager TOM FALLON created the evocative lighting and music for this psychoanalytic drama. Costume Designer LORRAINE ROKOVITZ selected a girlish dress with polka dots for Rhoda, and had the rest of the cast in period appropriate dress.
“The Bad Seed” is a little over two hours long and holds the audience captive with the fine performances until its dramatic ending. Nature or nurture is an old question, and Maxwell’s drama becomes even more thought-provoking after reflection on today’s news which is often filled with accounts of senseless crime.
We don’t see many thrillers on the stage and this is a good one that has stood the test of time and is still frequently performed. We did not, however, walk out of the theatre singing ” Thank heaven for little girls,” and our readers probably won’t either.
THE BAD SEED
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM