A journey into the wasteland of a serial killer’s mind & the possibility of forgiveness in Seven Siblings’ chilling, heartbreaking Frozen

Scott McCulloch, Nancy McAlear & Madryn McCabe. 


Is it possible to forgive a man who has murdered a child? The stuff of every parent’s nightmare becomes an opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness as a forensic psychologist offers her thesis on the minds serial killers in Seven Siblings Theatre’s compelling, moving production of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen. Directed by Will King, Frozen opened last night at the b current Studio Theatre at Artscape Wychwood Barns.

American forensic psychologist Agnetha (Madryn McCabe)—who has a fear of flying and some emotional turmoil of her own to deal with—is on her way to London, England to give a lecture on her thesis and interview a new subject: serial killer Ralph (Scott McCulloch). We also meet Nancy (Nancy McAlear), a mother whose 10-year-old daughter Rhona went missing on her way to her grandmother’s over 20 years ago.

Shifting into the past and returning to the present, we learn the details of Rhona’s disappearance. Nancy’s sullen teenage daughter Ingrid refuses to go to her grandmother’s, as it involves gardening work, so Nancy sends Rhona instead. Ralph sees an opportunity and takes it. As these flashbacks include both Nancy and Ralph’s points of view, we get devastating and alarming accounts of the events that led to the loss of this loved girl.

Agnetha, along with neuroscientist colleague David (voice-over by Jim Armstrong), has collected evidence that suggests abuse, neglect and brain trauma permanently alter the brain structures of serial killers, rendering them unable to control their actions. And, as these people—mostly men—are ill, and not evil monsters, can we not therefore forgive them?

In the early years following Rhona’s disappearance, Nancy throws herself into activism work with an organization dedicated to finding missing children and reuniting them with their families. Living in hope and denial, she believes in her heart that Rhona is still alive. Her hopes are dashed when she learns that police have taken Ralph into custody for the attempted abduction of a girl; his tattoos betray his whereabouts on the dates and locations of other missing girls. Rhona’s remains are found, along with those of other victims and his collection of child porn videos, in his shed—in Nancy’s neighbourhood, close to home. Bringing Nancy, Agnetha and Ralph together, the tragedy of Rhona’s abduction and murder becomes a catalyst for personal journey and self-discovery—with unexpected and startling results.

Cerebral, visceral and spiritual, it’s a challenging piece for the ensemble, to say the least—and this cast rises to the occasion with layered, nuanced and compelling performances. McCabe is strikingly professional, deeply vulnerable and tender as Agnetha. Struggling to keep it together as she continues the work that she and David started, Agnetha must keep her own internal conflicts under control as she interviews Ralph and assesses whether it’s wise to allow Nancy to visit him. McAlear is a heartbreaking, determined warrior mother as Nancy. The glue that keeps her family together, Nancy must not only come to terms with the fact that Rhona isn’t coming back, but accept the long-term impacts on her family as each member grows up and even apart from her. And as something shifts in her own heart and mind, what will she say when she sees Ralph? McCulloch is both chilling and gruffly charming as Ralph; a master manipulator and liar, Ralph is disturbingly nonchalant about his proclivities and hunting habits. Forced to turn inward during his meetings with Agnetha, who’s told him that he can’t help himself due to his traumatic childhood and brain injury, what will he find?

Frozen in time, with only her bones left behind, Rhona reaches out to each of these characters. Can Agnetha and Nancy move on from their devastating losses? Frozen in a mind that dictates deviant desires and behaviour, can Ralph understand the hurtful impact of, and feel remorse for, what he’s done? Can we distinguish evil from illness—and what will we do with that understanding?

Heartbreaking, chilling and peppered with dark humour—and provocative in Agnetha’s thesis of the possibility of forgiveness for a serial killer—Frozen is an emotionally and intellectually turbulent ride. Staged with minimal set pieces—cubes that are stacked and moved with precision to create the space—with live sound by director King, Seven Siblings’ Frozen is both uncomfortable and revealing in its intimacy. Try as we may, we can’t look away.

Frozen continues in the b current Studio Theatre until June 3; advance tickets available online—a good idea given the limited seating in this intimate venue.


Riveting, jarringly honest & moving – EN(LIVE)N Productions’ Frozen

Last night, I saw the final preview performance of EN(LIVE)N Productions’ run of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen, directed by Andrew Freund, at The Box Toronto – and it was a gripping, poignant and thought-provoking trip.

The stage is set with seating for the audience along the length of the intimate space, on both sides, and throughout the centre. Actor Alexander Saridag, who we see later as the prison guard, suggests seating as people enter. Hanging from the lighting grid are various items, some of which are props and others denoting a specific place: children’s toys, family photographs, personal items from a purse or briefcase, glass wind chimes with mini bottles of booze attached, a micro audio recorder and tapes, videotapes carefully sealed in clear plastic bags, two rope nooses. There is an eerie, low-volume soundtrack playing in the background. A howling wind? Screeching children? Playing? Terrified? The other three actors pace the space. All creating a sense of anxious, curiosity-filled anticipation.

As Freund points out in his program notes, Frozen is a memory play. Through a series of monologues, during which the actors often speak directly to the audience, as well as two-hander scenes, we follow the lives and thoughts of three people. Agnetha (Lynn Zeelenberg) is an American academic, studying serial killers using both psychological and neurological examination; Nancy (Lavetta Griffin) is a British mother who’s dealing with the trauma of a missing 10-year-old daughter; and Ralph (Peter Nelson), also a Brit, a rough and snake-like charming loner with troubling sexual proclivities.
Each character is compelling in his/her own way – and performed with jarring honesty and great respect by a fine cast. Zeelenberg does an excellent job of juggling Agnetha’s conflicting emotions; an academic struggling with her own loss and sins even as she studies and lectures on one of the most reviled criminal types imaginable. And her scenes with Ralph are layered with a tense curiosity, a driven sense of exploration, and a touching, nurturing quality. Griffin does a lovely job as Nancy, going from put-upon housewife and mother, to living the emotional turmoil of the loss of her youngest daughter, to crusading activist. Like Agnetha, Nancy is also seeking answers – and, even more so, closure. Nelson is both mesmerizing and repulsive as Ralph, who has a certain bizarre logic to his perversity – a method to his madness. Ralph is unable to forge true human connections, and Nelson does a beautiful job of revealing Ralph’s humanity as he responds to the women’s attempts to connect, both intellectually and emotionally, with a combination of boyish confusion, longing and repulsion. Nice work from Saridag, doing multiple duty as our host/usher, set and props valet, and the silent but expressive Guard.

With shouts to the design team: Natalia Tcherniak (set), Claire McMillan (costumes), Eric Sullivan (lighting) and Dave Fitzpatrick (sound and photography).

Riveting, moving and gut-wrenchingly real – relieved with snatches of dark humour and the foibles of everyday life – Frozen holds no punches in its intense examination of memory, loss, sex crime and forgiveness.

EN(LIVE)N Productions’ Frozen opens tonight (April 5) and continues until April 20 at The Box Toronto. Tickets are $20 and available online. Go see this.

Production stills by David A. (aka Dave) Fitzpatrick:

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