As if Washington’s current climate isn’t frigid enough for our liking, Bryony Lavery’s controversial play Frozen has arrived to further chill the air. The Tony-nominated drama, which centers on the disappearance of a young girl, saw a Broadway run in 2004, a Studio Theatre production in 2006, and can be seen at the Anacostia Playhouse through March 1.
No, it’s nothing like that other Frozen. Let’s get that out of the way. And for everyone’s sake, leave the kids at home.
This Frozen traces the intersecting journeys of three characters trapped within different forms of emotional stasis. Nancy Shirley (played by Anacostia Playhouse co-founder Adele Robey) has been reconstructing the circumstances of her 10-year-old daughter’s abduction and murder for so many years, she now defines herself through grief. Ralph (Frank Bliss), an abuse victim himself, wastes away behind bars with no sense of remorse for kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and slaughtering several children.
And Agnetha Gottmundsdottir (Jo Sullivan), a criminal psychologist whose study of serial killers has brought her overseas, masks her own grief for a recent loss behind the cool, detached veneer of academia.
Much of the play unfolds in long monologues, and director Delia Taylor has staged the piece so that each character inhabits his or her own protected area of the spare stage, contributing to the feeling that everyone is isolated by their own pathology. Only when Dr. Gottmundsdottir begins to visit Ralph as a part of her research does the dialogue begin, opening a gradual space for other conversations (Gottmundsdottir and Nancy, Nancy and Ralph) that runs parallel to the characters’ expanded ability to feel, connect, and (maybe even) forgive.
We are fed two tracks of information. One follows Nancy’s daughter to her ultimate and awful fate. The other, through a presentation given by the visiting psychologist, reveals the science of a serial killer’s mind. The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness, as Dr. Gottmundsdottir says, is “the difference between a sin and a symptom.” Taken one step further, the play seems to ask whether forgiveness comes easier with the knowledge of why a crime was committed. Whether the criminal could help it. Whether he, and his neurological development, are any more than products of their environment and past trauma.
Robey’s Nancy feels legitimately beaten down by life, even before the full picture of what she’s experienced becomes clear. Her grief for her younger daughter begets more sadness: a strained relationship with her elder daughter and eventual divorce from her husband. They have found ways to move on, we presume. She has not.
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Surprisingly, it is Dr. Gottmundsdottir who shines in this production as the most compelling character. Small cracks in her clinical professionalism reveal the slight glow of empathy, the desire for human connection. She breaks the rules of physical contact in the prison visitation room, confides personal information to Nancy—a patient. Unlike Nancy and Ralph, we can only guess at the conditions that made her who she’s become. Sullivan’s performance is poignant and nuanced, and while the psychologist is capable of a fuller range of emotions than either Ralph or Nancy, she also seems most profoundly alone.
Ultimately, this exploration of trauma, forgiveness, and empathy strikes more at the head than it does at the heart. It is nonetheless a worthy performance by all three actors, and a bold addition to the Anacostia Playhouse’s ambitious programming.
Frozen by Bryony Lavery . Directed by Delia Taylor . Featuring Adele Robey, Frank Bliss and Jo Sullivan . Presented by Anacostia Playhouse . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.