It’s fascinating how the macabre mesmerizes the human mind, and how quickly the entertainment industry works to feed that intrigue. A new thriller TV series, book or movie seemingly crops up overnight. “Frozen,” written by Bryony Lavery, takes a less sensational, more resonating look into the “artic sea of the criminal brain,” dissecting the compelling emotional lives of three individuals connected by one serial killer’s actions.
Set in England, with the action beginning in 1980 and continuing to present day, the story revolves around Nancy (Jennifer Shank), whose youngest daughter Rhona goes missing one afternoon. Several years later, Ralph (Joe Hatfield) is arrested and charged with the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of seven young girls, one of whom is determined to be Rhona. Agnetha (Elaine Hackett) is an American psychiatrist studying the imprisoned Ralph to cull evidence for a thesis suggesting that the serial killer suffered abuse as a child that neurologically impaired his ability to discern right from wrong.
The most prominent theatrical element of this play is the onstage isolation of each character. There is some interaction, but primarily the characters are alone with their thoughts. While this ever-popular trend of characters speaking in monologues instead of with each other can simply be the mark of a lazy playwright, in this case it serves to mimic the deep sense of seclusion felt by each.
In a play that relies solely on the characters, the challenge is to allow the audience total viewing access to the actors. Director Michael Harris echoes the desolate emotional landscape of the play by keeping the set sparse, and he does his best to work with the space the MeX Theater provides. If you have a choice, I recommend you sit in the front instead of the sides.
Joe Hatfield and Jennifer Shank produce layered, multidimensional characters that both, strangely enough, endear. Nancy plays her cards close to her chest in a typical British way, and Shank fleshes her out, making her more than just her grief. Hatfield, who’s incorporated a set of well-chosen facial and verbal tics into his characterization, presents Ralph as a man-child more apt to garner sympathy than fear or disgust. Heartbreaking is the only adjective to describe the scene in which he invents childhood memories to recount to the psychiatrist.
Elaine Hackett unfortunately drops the ball in this trio. She continually indicates to the audience what she’s thinking instead of … just thinking. Moreover, I found it incongruous that a psychiatrist would respond with bemused or sarcastic expressions while in a session with an obviously disturbed person like Ralph.
In spite of that complaint, “Frozen” warrants an audience. It’s mostly well-acted, allowing the script to ask its question unfettered. Is it possible to reconstruct the popular notion of a serial killer as purely evil, seeing that person as ill instead? Or is that mindset simply a way to more easily reconcile our minds to forgiveness? Ultimately, the play asks us when and how forgiveness is truly able to thaw the frozen heart — and that might just be inexplicable.