During his lifetime, literary success would never be his. His last novel, The Bad Seed would go on to become a bestseller, but he would never enjoy it; author William March passed away just one month after the book was published.
He would never see the faithfully adapted stage version written that same year in 1954. He would never enjoy the popular Patty McCormack 1956 film the changed the ending, nor the made-for-television movie of 1985 that changed the little girl’s name from Rhoda to Rachel. And he would miss the Rob Lowe remake that aired earlier this year on Lifetime, the one that changed the central character of a mother to that of a widowed father, and once again changed the name of the little girl, this time to Emma. And he certainly wouldn’t have heard of the unmade, grisly update conceived by horror filmmaker Eli Roth. Though in the case of the Lifetime version, maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.
Using A.M. radio hit recordings of the period such as Sam Cooke, The Chordettes, and The Platters as interludes for scene transitions, director Diane Senffner’s new production of The Bad Seed, now playing at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre’s intimate Actor’s Café until November 18, returns valley audiences to the original. This is the 1954 Maxwell Anderson adapted version that went on to become a long-running Broadway play. In fact, during the fifties, the original cast was so identified with their characters that two years later when the first of the films went into production, Hollywood used most of the original performers to reprise their roles.
The story of a mother’s discovery that her innocent looking eight-year-old is, in reality, a murderous sociopath, void of pity, morals, or compassion while being a skillful manipulator who has no difficulty charming adults is by now an integral part of American pop culture. The play, like the book, tackles the theme of nature versus nurture; are the evil actions of a child the result of environmental issues, parental upbringing, or are they hereditary?
Today, the issue that a child’s internal wiring is so askew it’s as if they were simply born evil is far more readily accepted than it was in the fifties at the time when March wrote his novel. News coverage of horrendous serial killings and murders committed by children have given the theory limitless support. The result is that the play while retaining its intrigue, lacks the emotional punch it once had. The shock value is gone. As good and as faithful as Anderson’s adaption of March’s novel is, it can’t overcome the passing of time and our awareness of real-life events. It’s a dated play, plus with a running time of just over two and a half hours including intermission, what is essentially a fairly simple story runs way too long. When the mother (Virginia Olivieri) declares an incredulous, “It can’t be true,” to herself just before the end of Act One, it’s an effective moment, well delivered, but it should have come earlier, along with the intermission.
What works for Desert Stages Theatre is the capable cast, a surprisingly large one. Though the program lists twelve characters, it’s the central few you’ll remember. As the mother, Virginia Olivieri successfully captures the intelligence required of the character as the distraught woman pieces together the clues that her seemingly perfect little child is really a conscience-free killer. Because of Olivieri, the conflict of a loving mother not wanting to believe what is obvious is heartbreaking to witness, making the play’s conclusion and the mother’s actions all the more believable.
Erica Connell as Mrs. Daigle, the mother of the bad seed’s classroom victim, has the unenviable task of playing drunk while breaking out into hysterics and, at one point, hysterical laughter, but carries it well. The character takes to alcohol to deal with her son’s murder. Her arrival in the first act gives the play a needed shot in the arm just at the time when Anderson’s script was in danger of sagging, but turning up in the second act seems unnecessary.
Among the several male characters, it’s Matthew Cary as the mother’s adopted father, Richard Bravo, who adds gravitas. In the book, the character was killed in World War ll, but in the play, he arrives in the second act. For the economy of time and a writer’s need to coherently explain things, the character becomes necessary when revealing past secrets, helping the young mother to fully understand the truth.
Though the oddest is Robert Peters’ portrayal of Leroy, the suspicious maintenance man. The character has a dark sense of humor for an audience of one, himself, though the way Peters delivers his dialog, he comes across as a weird kind of Greek chorus as if in a different play, commenting aloud in front of the little girl the story so far as if she couldn’t hear him. When he spills water from his pail, his clumsiness is unnatural, and so is the actor’s portrayal of it. As played here, it’s a character that doesn’t convince.
However, in the end, the play can either rise or fall due to the casting of the bad seed herself, Rhoda Penmark. As the murderous though innocent looking child with the Heidi pigtails, ten-year-old Anora Biggs fully captures what is required when appearing sweet while deceiving those around her. She’s effectively pitiless. With a clear voice and the confidence of a professional, she’s like an upbeat creepy Disney child, effectively changing from deliberate sweetness to the sociopath that Rhoda really is. Her character lacks inner feelings but can turn one on at a moment’s notice. When Rhoda’s father (Mike Halpin) is about to leave the home for a few months he asks his daughter whether she’ll miss him. “Do you want me to?” she asks as if needing direction on how to react.
The living room set designed by director Senffner and Rick Sandifer makes effective use of the Actor’s Café restrictive space; the tables, chairs, and sofas decorate the area without hindering movement, though the creamy white walls create a brighter, cheerier tone than the dark story requires, and having a front door that opens outwards into an apartment hallway rather than inwards is, frankly, peculiar.
But ultimately, what no longer surprises modern audiences in its telling robs the piece of its impact. At any moment in time, the notion of a killer child is horrifying, but not so much in entertainment, and certainly not on the level it horrified when The Bad Seed first appeared. Watching this accomplished Desert Stages’ new production, what once had a present-day setting but is now a period drama remains entertaining enough, but it can’t deliver the required sense of eeriness it once had. This is neither the fault of Desert Stages nor Diane Senffner’s direction; it’s the fault of time, modern tastes, and the need to get to the point. Intelligent slow burns will always be effective, but without The Bad Seed‘s ability to any longer create a surprising, intensified atmosphere, a play of this nature to be enjoyed and accepted by newer, younger audiences unfamiliar with the classic plot need things to move.
Even the new big screen Halloween acknowledged this. Regarding the seventies original, one character in the new film remarks that the murderous Myers only killed five people. That now seems no big deal compared to present-day slasher flicks where triple that number with grisly close-ups are required. Without changing the characters, the time period, nor the classic conclusion, The Bad Seed could do with an all-around fresh adaptation.
The Bad Seed continues at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre until November 18
Pictures Courtesy of Renee Ashlock