We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
She deals them out like playing cards, showing her hand, calling his bluff: one family snapshot after another, placed with quiet deliberation on the table before a man who struggles not to respond to them, the very man who has put more such snapshots forever beyond her reach. It is possible, it turns out, to discover ferocity at the heart of gentleness: The actress Nancy Robinette has done it in Frozen, a thrilling and lucid play about how mourning becomes the bereaved, the bereaver, and the bystander alike.
Robinette is the centerpiece, the rock-solid core of David Muse’s triumphant production for Studio Theatre Secondstage, but she is by no means its only invaluable asset. Andrew Long, in a terrifyingly committed, immensely disturbing performance, plays Ralph, the man for whom she’s displaying those photos so tenderly, so insistently: They are photos of the daughter Ralph abducted and murdered years ago, and never mind what the experts advise, Robinette’s grieving mother intends to make Ralph understand exactly what he’s taken away from her. With wonderfully sensitive guidance from Muse (who had a runaway hit for Secondstage with last summer’s effervescent The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow)—and with sturdy support from MaryBeth Wise as an academic who studies Ralph while wrestling with a loss of her own—Robinette and Long make a quietly humane case for a play that examines the way tragedy can lock survivors in a kind of icebound state, a play that charts intimately the cracks and the slippage that come when the glaze of grief begins to thaw. Most gratifyingly, Muse’s team brings a wonderful transparency to a play that also—famously, coolly, unapologetically—insists that “the difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom.”
That memorable line, though, was written by Malcolm Gladwell, not Bryony Lavery—Frozen, according to various news accounts, turns out to be a gifted playwright’s mash-up of real-world psychological inquiry, popular serial-killer fiction, and true-life tragedy, and Lavery, controversially, did some borrowing in the process of building it. No matter: It’s true that the playwright likes Gladwell’s phrase enough to employ it twice in the course of a two-hour show, but the genius of Frozen has less to do with the logic of the neuropsychological theories distilled in that quote than with the generous metaphysics of the idea it captures—and the taut, clean, utterly wrenching drama Lavery builds on its bones.
Robinette plays Nancy, a garrulous mum-next-door in some unnamed British village who finds the agreeable messiness of her domestic everyday upended when her daughter goes missing on the way to grandma’s house one afternoon. A stretch of anxiously hopeful activism (she launches a missing-children’s charity) gives way to a staggering, immobilizing grief once police capture Ralph: His confession makes it clear that Nancy’s searches on that awful day took her near, but not quite near enough, the shed where her daughter lay wrapped in plastic sheeting, dying but perhaps not yet beyond hope of rescue. “If only” gives way rapidly to “If I’d…” and “If she’d…” and “I could have…,” and the smallness of the playing, the exquisite, fine-grained agony Robinette summons in these passages is a tiny, quiet thing that betrays the hugeness and the clamor of the suffering her character struggles to keep inside.
Long’s Ralph, meanwhile, is a chillingly fine-tuned thing, a twitchy creature given to spells of brooding and sudden, startling moments of alertness. His eyes dart, then in a heartbeat go blank and distant, and he all but disappears behind them; he blinks, rapidly, and he tilts his head to one side, and you sense the menace gathering. He lovingly catalogs his tattoos, remembering the professionalism of his favorite artists; he explains precisely and logically the filing system he’s devised for his child-porn videos; he bristles with outrage at the landlady who’s ill-treating him, and somehow Long creates a personality within whose head all of these things can be reconciled.
Wise brings a brusque and convincing competence to the part of Agnetha, the American psychiatrist who flies in to study Ralph and to lecture on a theory that would explain his pathology as the product of worldly evils, the damage of abuse and neglect, rather than an evil intrinsic to itself. If there is a weak thread in Muse’s otherwise extraordinary staging, it’s that Agnetha and her personal crises (she’s betrayed a friend and lost a partner) can seem a trifle artificial, a little invented and a little performative. Still, she’s wonderfully crisp behind the podium, and there’s an unmistakable Starling-and-Lecter shiver in the scenes that put her in a cell with her subject.
When Nancy finally makes the prison pilgrimage herself, that sheaf of photographs at the ready, Frozen discovers something astonishing behind the grimness and the pain: an enormous, almost ruthless compassion, a cleansing wave of grief that makes it possible for us to break our hearts for Ralph, to lean in and want to comfort him before we remember to recoil. Cornered, he suffers as Nancy has suffered, and Long makes him terribly pitiable; his anguish is that of an animal who feels pain in every fiber but can’t begin to understand its causes.
And when the inevitable happens in the wake of that dam-breaking visit, the last of the ice melts, and the light of looking forward at last begins to dance a little on the lake of Nancy and Agnetha’s emotional lives, and the moment breathes a kind of calm—peace, almost, though there’s a bittersweetness to it, and a sense of the burden each woman will always carry. The wonder of Frozen, of the play and of this gorgeous production, is that you know somehow that they’ll be able to bear it.
It’s plain, at the beginning of The Retreat From Moscow, that things aren’t going well for Alice and Edward: Sure, they’ve been married 33 years, but the matching armchairs that anchor the edges of Bill Clarke’s blandly domestic set might as well be in different time zones. And it’s gratifying, at the end, when Edward (Rick Foucheux) finally learns to explain himself in his now ex-wife’s language—the distilled metaphors of the poetry she’s always memorized in reams. But in between, James Edmondson’s deliberately low-key production for the Round House Theatre tends to bog down a little in the moment-to-moment grimness of a relationship one party is desperate to escape and the other is equally desperate to save. And while it’s probably cruel to say so, Alice (Carol Mayo Jenkins) puts it best, toward the end of the play’s long, wintry march: “The thing about unhappiness is, after a while, it stops being interesting.”
William Nicholson’s autobiographical play is pitiless and perceptive about how hard it can be to stay true at once to a relationship and to yourself. It grasps something, too, that few of us care to confront: People come in very different types, and the fact that ill-matched couples may love each other doesn’t always make it possible for them to bear each other.
The performances at Round House, moreover, can be wonderfully subtle. Foucheux’s defeated everyman blooms beautifully in one exchange with his equally hangdog son (a nicely understated Tim Getman), after an early, happy memory momentarily awakens the man he used to be. Jenkins, meanwhile, builds a wounded, frustrated character who’s a bit braver and a bit brighter than her husband, and the actress is nervy and confident enough to allow Alice to stumble more than once across the line between sympathetic and selfish.
Yet once it becomes plain that Nicholson’s not going to allow his characters (much less his audience) much in the way of catharsis, all the pain he’s so carefully evoked stops seeming so unbearable, and his characters’ company begins to seem, for too long, merely unpleasant. It was every man for himself when Napoleon ordered his troops home from Moscow, as Foucheux’ history-buff Edward makes grimly plain early on, but in the attempt to chronicle an equivalently tragic retreat on the domestic front, Nicholson asks audiences to stay with him on something dispiritingly like a death march.CP