Breaking the ice


Killer Ralph (Michael Grimm) cowers while being analyzed by Dr. Agnetha (LaRonda Etheridge) in <i>Frozen</i>.

Killer Ralph (Michael Grimm) cowers while being analyzed by Dr. Agnetha (LaRonda Etheridge) in Frozen.

Photo By David Robert

Dr. Dorothy Lewis once kissed Ted Bundy on the cheek. This American psychiatrist, a specialist in serial killers, was the last person to speak with Bundy before he died in the electric chair. In her book Guilty by Reason of Insanity, written with the late neurologist Jonathan Pincus, she theorizes that a predilection for violence stems from brain injury or mental illness—it’s illness, not evil.

This was Bryony Lavery’s inspiration in 2004 for her Tony Award-nominated play Frozen, on stage at Brüka Theatre starting this weekend.

Frozen is the story of the abduction, sexual abuse and murder of a 10-year-old girl named Rhona. The play constantly jumps in time, from the aftermath of the abduction to the discovery of her body in a storage shed to the mourning period afterward. But the audience never sees Rhona or any of the violence. The three main characters are Rhona’s mother, Nancy, played by a haunting Holly Natwora; Rhona’s killer, Ralph (Michael Grimm); and Dr. Agnetha Gottmundsdottir, the Icelandic psychiatrist (LaRonda Etheridge). Agnetha, who closely mirrors Dorothy Lewis, uses Ralph to support her thesis: “Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?” (An interesting side note: Lewis filed charges against Lavery in 2004 for plagiarism.) The only other character is the prison guard, played in icy silence by Morgan Wright.

Director Jim Martin says Lavery writes in a very precise meter, leaving little room for interpretation: “The organization of sentences, the way she uses single words without connecting them, often with no grammatical correctness, one critic described it as ‘pointillism.’ It’s a whole bunch of dots, but if you stand away from it, you don’t see them. The audience won’t realize what she’s done, but even though it seems realistic, like we’re just talking to one another, there’s a lot going on underneath … There’s a very rich quality in the language. It’s different from how most drama is written today. It’s like she’s tried to enrich the mundane TV dialogue we hear all the time.”

This production, which takes place in the intimate underground space of Sub-Brüka, involves a sparse set—little more than a table, two chairs and a podium. Costuming is just as understated. There’s very little to look at during such intimate, uncomfortable moments as when Nancy stares you right in the eye, expressing rage over her daughter’s death. And that’s the point. If you’re not squirming, you’re not paying attention.

While Michael Grimm’s interpretation of the killer Ralph even shook him up a bit, he feels good about the message of the show, which has the ability to humanize even the darkest of characters. “I doubt people will change their minds about Ralph,” says Grimm. “I don’t think they’ll feel sorry for him. But I do think that when people leave the theater, they’ll be thinking about it and discussing it.”