by Bryony Lavery
Directed by Adam Zahler
New Repertory Theatre at Arsenal Center for the Arts
321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA / (617) 923 - 8487
Through Feb. 12; seen Jan. 23 in preview

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Unlike the original London 1998 presentation of Bryony Lavery's intellectual thriller, "Frozen", which took place on a bare stage with three lonely chairs or the quite spare Tony-nominated version which played on Broadway last year, the New Rep's current impressive production has a simple yet sophisticated set created by IRNE & Norton winning Boston designer Richard Wadsworth Chambers. The stage is covered with a several inches of fine white sand which reads in this context as snow. Each of the three actors has a small square rostrum towards the rear on which sits a single black chair and a few props. These platforms are framed by black pipes which rise to meet a transparent tilted ceiling looming overhead. The space is expertly lit by veteran designer Karen Perlow, who teaches at M.I.T., doing her first show in this space.The effect is equal to any seen at the American Repertory Theatre or the Huntington Theatre Company, but without overwhelming the play. The abstract setting provides award-winning director Adam Zahler and his trio of first-rate actors a springboard for a mesmerizing examination of "Frozen"'s harrowing story.

As striking as the staging is, this examination of evil and forgiveness would be nothing without the tightly focused skills of the cast. Even though the script is constructed mostly from a series of monologues with interaction between pairs of characters at critical moments, the ensemble creates a set of characters focused on the author's principal query. Award-winning actress Nancy E. Carroll plays Nancy Shirley, the mother of two young girl's, one of whom, Rhona, is abducted and twenty years later found to have been molested and smothered by a serial killer. That repulsive role, Ralph Wantage, falls to Bates Wilder, seen at the New Rep in its old home in Newton in "Jerusalem", "No Exit" (as Lucky), and "Scapin." Carroll was previously seen there as Mrs. Loveit and the Witch in their very successful Sondheim revivals. The third actor is Adrianne Hewlett playing Agnetha Gottmundsdottir, an American psychiatrist of Icelandic extraction who's researching the depths of mental impairment which results in serial murder. A professor of Theatre Arts at Brandeis, she was seen recently at the Vineyard Playhouse, has played in Chicago and around the country, and began her Boston career with Speakeasy's "Snakebit" and BTW's "Bug." Each character is sharply drawn, but not after the fashion which such potential stereotypes might appear in current film or television scripts that have reveled in such material. Lavery, with a long career in England in several capacities, has chosen this subject for its moral implications.

The show does not however become preachy. Rather the audience is confronted with three flawed human beings. Wantage is played as a rather peculiar fellow whose abusive childhood led to the development of his murderous tendencies and disturbed everyday behavior. Versatile Wilder is a very convincing villain. While outwardly stone-cold, his actual fragility is evident, at first in encounters with the psychiatrist, then in a confrontation with Mrs. Shirley. The latter meeting leads to the play's inevitable conclusion. Nancy Shirley starts out as an almost stereo typed English "mum," but develops into woman obsessed with her lost daughter and changed in several ways by the eventual discovery of her daughter's fate. Carroll plays these developments and the character's ultimate quandary with conviction. Hewlett's psychiatrist has to function on several levels. Agnetha Gottmundsdottir is outwardly a highly competent professional, delivering the play's scientific rationale quite convincingly. Inwardly, this woman has a secret grief gnawing at her, which is somewhat peripheral to the main argument, but tangentially connected enough to make the final conclusion more interesting. Whether her thesis, "Serial Killing; A Forgivable Act," ultimately holds up is for the audience to decide, unlike the simplistic formulas found in televised crime dramas or movies. The end might have been written or played more ambiguously, but certainly supports the core of the play.

Zahler, has made the most of his actors' individual talents, helped by excellent costume choices as usual by Frances Nelson McSherry. He's found unique uses for the "snow" which covers the stage as well. The show also benefits from an original score and soundscape by Jeffery Alan Jones, who has a variety of significant local credits. His last effort was Speakeasy's "Theatre District" in the fall. Like past New Rep productions, this effort has a high attention to detail in all aspects, while focusing on first-rate performances. Moving to the larger space at the Arsenal Center for the Arts has only increased the company's potential. Their continuing ability to attract the best talent in the area bodes well for the rest of the season, which ends with a large-scale production of "Ragtime" featuring award-winner Leigh Barrett.

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