In “Frozen,” Fresno State student Austin Yarbrough portrays a despicable man. And he does it well.
The temptation in British playwright Bryony Lavery’s drama about the murder of a child would be to portray the serial killer as some sort of freak-show attraction. Part of this is because I think we want to believe that anyone capable of sexually abusing and killing a number of young girls — which we learn early on in the play is the tragic work of an English drifter named Ralph — would be so unlike a “normal” person that it’d be instantly clear he belongs in a cage, like a wild animal at the zoo.
But in Yarbrough’s nuanced hands, and working under the carefully restrained direction of Kathleen McKinley, Ralph is no over-the-top, Chianti-sipping Hannibal Lechter. With his soft, mumbling voice and occasional twitches, Ralph could be just one more of the slightly strange people you might encounter in an average day. Only through repeated exposure do we begin to realize just how twisted his mind is. Something is broken in his brain. And by that time, flashing forward 20 years after his murder spree came to an end, he’s become a fully formed character — horrible actions and all — and not just a cardboard stereotype.
The production continues through Friday at Fresno State’s Woods Theatre.
Coldness and frigidity are oft-repeated motifs in Lavery’s script, with its three major characters seemingly stuck in a deep psychological freeze. Extending that general metaphor, the problem with this production of “Frozen,” alas, is that it is so restrained and scrupulously non-sentimental — so analytic and measured — that it never kindles much dramatic fire.
I can usually glean more than enough from an amateur or college production to understand why acclaimed plays have received that recognition. But with “Frozen,” which was nominated for four Tony awards, I can’t make that connection, even with impressive performances by Yarbrough and Rhiannon Fernandez, who plays the mother of the victim.
Set in a series of flashbacks mostly related in monologues, we slowly learn the agonizing story of 10-year-old Rhona, who goes missing on a short walk to her grandmother’s house. Nancy (played with a pert yet grief-stricken vigor by Fernandez, who closes the first act with a beautiful moment), is Rhona’s mother. For years, Nancy holds out hope her daughter is still alive. But the dreaded phone call from the police finally comes.
Meanwhile, the story is stitched together by Ralph, who relates with eerie calm how he met and abducted Rhona, and Agnetha (Molly Kelly), an American scholar researching her thesis, titled ”Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?’
Lavery isn’t interested in crafting a true-crime-style drama. Instead, the murder is a backdrop against which we find ourselves immersed in three very different lives. As details emerge — Ralph’s horrible childhood, Agnetha’s relationship traumas, Nancy’s march from grief to scalding need to forgive — their paths cross, if briefly. What do they have in common? They’re like ice cubes stuck in a tray, detached from others.
In many ways, I think the Agnetha character is hardest to pull off in this play, requiring the portrayal of a woman whose very psychological well-being requires the ability to detach herself from her work — and yet who needs to get close enough to her subjects to gain real insights. Add to that Agnetha’s personal issues, and she’s a swirl of angst. Kelly was too often broadly shrill on opening night when she should have been tightly, caustically wound-up (in a scene on an airplane, for instance). At other times, I felt she didn’t give her character’s relationship with the killer the depth and texture it needed. Her scenes with Yarbrough remained on the surface.
McKinley worked with student designers for the production, and the costume design (by Heather Sisk) and lighting design (by Marc Petros) gives the production a spare and lean aesthetic. Sometimes that aesthetic is too spare. (More could have been done with the lighting to accentuate key moments, such as the play’s climactic confrontation.) Kyle Jensen’s effective sound design adds a nice, grounded texture to the minimalist setting, and Ashley Salter’s make-up design — which includes several prominent tattoos — add a prominent visual impact.
Overall, I suppose my mixed take on this production of “Frozen” comes down to this: It’s a play that wants to make you think. But the issues it so studiously raises — What is the cost and benefit of forgiveness? How does grief make us stronger? Should mentally ill people be responsible for reprehensible actions, and what form should that punishment take? — remain coldly clinical. I tend to dwell on engaging philosophical questions asked in theater, but I didn’t feel that inclination after this play. I wanted the production to defrost a little, to warm up. I wanted it to melt into something more gripping and profound.