The story is an examination of the “nature vs. nurture” arguments that have been going on since the advent of modern psychiatry. In the 21st century, we have eliminated some of the simplistic notions of the argument, but in a world filled with inexplicable acts of violence, we still want to know “why.”
Col. Kenneth Penmark (Brad Kinzel) is preparing to leave his wife, Christine (Linda Ryan) and their 8-year-old daughter, Rhoda (Kaylee Ryan) for an assignment. He’ll be gone at least a few weeks, and in the opening scene, he is saying goodbye to his adorable little girl whom he loves dearly. They have a little routine where he says, “What will you give me if I give you a basket of kisses?” and she responds, “I’ll give you a basket of hugs.” Rhoda will be heading out to her school picnic that same day, accompanied by one of her teachers, Miss Fern (Kristy Wehrle). Playwright Anderson gets Miss Fern into the scene by contriving that she’ll pick up some cupcakes provided by landlady and best friend to Christine, Monica (Ann E. Egenriether). The teacher and the mother talk about Rhoda who may not be exactly as she seems, and both of them are concerned about her.
Rhoda is upset because she believes a classmate, Claude Daigle, won a penmanship medal that she deserved. But she seems carefree and skips off wearing her red dress and favorite matching shoes with taps on the heels, her long blonde braids bouncing. Monica keeps house for her brother Emory (Joe Wegescheide) and the two are a kind of “Fred and Ethel” in their propensity for always dropping in. Monica is interested in psychology and psychiatry and fancies herself an armchair analyst. When Christine discusses a recurring dream she has about being an adopted child, Monica asserts that all dreams are based in reality. She also has a lot of other peculiar notions, but this one happens to have some basis in fact.
Later the same day, Emory turns on the radio, and he, Monica and Christine hear about a drowning at Rhoda’s picnic. Christine panics, but is soon relieved to learn that Rhoda is safe. Rhoda comes bouncing in, undisturbed by the events of the day, despite her mother’s concerns that she’ll be upset. Christine says she herself never had to deal with death until she was older. (Actually, Rhoda has already witnessed an old woman with whom she spent time die in a fall, but oddly that fact is ignored. That seems to be a gaffe on the playwright’s part.) As time goes on, Rhoda’s behavior becomes more worrisome to her mother, but the annoyingly chatty Monica bashes on and on about what a wonderful child Rhoda is. The only person Rhoda doesn’t seem to have fooled is the handyman, Leroy (Ethan H. Jones) who teases her about being responsible for Claude’s death.
A friend of the Penmarks, Reginald Tasker (Archie Coleman) is a criminologist who writes popular crime fiction, and he comes around to visit. When he does, Christine begins asking him questions about whether children can be murderers, and if so, is it because of their life experiences or their genetic makeup? Tasker speaks at length on the subject, concluding that recent studies do indicate that killers can start very young and most often come from families with tendencies toward violence. When he asks Christine why she wants to know about such things, she claims that she is going to “try her hand” at a crime novel. Christine’s father, the well-known reporter and radio personality Richard Bravo (Mark Slaten) arrives, having not seen his family for a year. Tasker is a fan of his, and the two men chat a bit.
Two more visitors come by a couple of times. The very drunk Mrs. Daigle (Mary Klein) and her apologetic husband, played by Jim True. She demands to see Rhoda and talk to her about what happened at the picnic. The proper Christine is horrified by the woman’s behavior, but she is also terribly sorry for the couple’s loss of their only child. Rhoda remains nonplussed by anything, and Christine becomes increasingly concerned. Does Rhoda know more than she’s letting on? Could she have done something to the boy? Is she capable of such a vile act? And then, Christine finds the penmanship medal.
Clayton Community Theatre has found a real star in Kaylee Ryan. She is a beautiful, angelic-looking child, but she knows how to work an audience with her facial expressions when the other characters can’t see her. Her real-life mother, Linda Ryan, is adept herself, and the two play well together, as does the elder Ryan with Slaten in their father-daughter scenes. Jones is a sly delight as Leroy, who everyone else thinks is simpleminded, but that’s just what he wants them to think. Wehrle is effective as the conflicted Miss Fern, as well, but this is Kaylee Ryan’s show every step of the way.
Overall, this is an enjoyable evening. Since the play is written 1950s style with long, expository speeches, it would be good if director Jones had the actors move around more rather than just plant themselves and talk. There could be more visual interest among the players on Jim Meady’s appropriate set if the characters made better use of it. The costumes, especially the women’s are fun and period appropriate for the most part (Maureen Highkin is credited) and Nathan Schroeder provided the lights. Is the nature-nurture debate settled? Well, you’ll need to find that one out for yourself.
“The Bad Seed” runs through May 5 at Washington University’s South Campus facility (the old CBC High School) on Clayton Rd. You may contact placeseveryone.org for information.