When you pry open the mind of a serial killer, what do you get? It’s a question people never seem to tire of asking, one that provides fodder for endless movie and TV plots, fills twenty-four hour news cycles, and provides fuel for the eternal debate over the morality and efficacy of capital punishment. It also happens to be one of the questions at the center of Byrony Lavery’s Frozen, currently receiving a solid but problematic staging at Park Square Theatre.
Maybe it’s Patty Wetterling fatigue. Or one too many Jon Benet Ramsey cases. Or the fact that Frozen was written ten years ago, Byrony Lavery is British, and England doesn’t yet have pedophiles lurking around every corner waiting to snatch little children and do unspeakable things to them in order to satisfy their deviant desires. Whatever it is, it makes Frozen feel less like a play than a starter script for a television show that was rejected on the grounds that it didn’t have enough action, the characters talked about themselves too much, and the killer himself didn’t seem evil enough.
The play revolves around three people: a serial killer named Ralph (played by Terry Hempleman), a psychologist who is researching a thesis called “Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?” (Linda Kelsey), and a woman (played by Karen Landry) whose seven-year-old daughter was abducted, raped, and killed by Ralph.
The gist of Agnetha the psychologist’s thesis is that most serial killers are victims themselves—of mental deficiencies, brain injuries, physical and emotional abuse, or all of the above—and are therefore not responsible for their actions. “The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom,” she says. The mother whose daughter Ralph killed doesn’t see it that way, of course—at least not in the beginning—and she would prefer to watch him fry in an electric chair than explain away his crimes as symptoms of a disease rather than the acts of a sadistic monster.
The play is acted well, especially by Terry Hempleman, who does a brilliant job of portraying a character who is creepy but charming, likeable on the surface but rotten underneath. Both Linda Kelsey and Karen Landry turn in polished performances as well. It’s just a shame that this ensemble didn’t have a more powerful script to work with. The issues at the heart of Frozen have been explored so thoroughly in American popular culture that it renders the play almost charmingly naïve. And in the end, what does one make of a play that tries to tackle issues that any number of TV shows—Criminal Minds, Numbers, Law and Order, Cold Case, Medium, take your pick—all treat in more interesting, sophisticated ways? The writers of these shows have been wracking their brains for years trying to come up with ever more bizarre pathologies for killers, and in the process they have created a kind of sociopath-entertainment complex. Psychological deviance is the entertainment industry’s biggest cash cow; if it weren’t, there would be no such thing as Saw 4.
At the center of all these dramas is the essential question: Why did he do it? For the most part, the entertainment industry likes sick, twisted, easy-to-hate killers who are obvious wackos. That way, people don’t go to bed confused about who the bad guy is. The best thing about Frozen is that it doesn’t serve up an easy answer. It implies that Ralph was an abused child and that a bump on his head may have somehow damaged his brain, and that these somehow caused him to ultimately become a child molester/murderer—but it leaves the core question open. Ralph did horrible things for which he isn’t very sorry, so it’s up to everyone else to figure out what to make of him. The trouble is, if society digs too deeply and actually answers the why? question of serial killers—e.g., that they all have a cortisone deficiency hindering the development of the pre-frontal lobe in their cerebral cortex—then we as a society have to re-examine how we apply the ideas of right and wrong, as well as crime and punishment.
These are the sorts of questions Frozen asks but cannot answer (the title refers to the emotional core of a serial killer’s brain), and this is both its strength as a dialectic on criminality, as well as its deficiency in the area of drama and storytelling. The set is framed by pieces scratched, cloudy plexiglass patched together into a wall of sorts, suggesting that this is not an issue we as a society see very clearly. You won’t see it any clearer after watching Frozen, but if you’re TV is on the fritz and you need a psycho-pathology fix, Park Square will happily sell you a ticket.
Frozen continues at Park Square through March 30, parksquaretheatre.org