Actress Abby Quammen is only 12 years old, but she has mastered the art of a sociopath's cold, dead-eyed stare. Her spine-tingling creepiness as the pig-tailed, murderous Rhoda Penmark is the highlight of Bad Seed, the latest production by Studio Players.
Abby — whom audiences might remember as the title character in Lexington Children's Theatre's recent production of Madeline's Christmas — embodies a spooky calm as the clever child murderer. It will be exciting to watch her talent develop.
Abby's performance simultaneously disturbs and titillates, but based on Thursday's opening-night performance, the rest of the production struggles to meet the same standards.
For one, Maxwell Anderson's script, adapted from a 1954 novel by William March, is overlong. There are clever plot developments, such as a worrying revelation about the genetics of Rhoda's mother (Jessica York), but there are also superfluous exchanges among characters who don't necessarily contribute anything to the plot's momentum.
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Then there are issues of uneven pacing. The show alternatively takes off to satisfying effect before lurching to a halt, like a train with too many stops.
In its best moments, it is fascinating to discover each new layer of Rhoda's concealed menace; the show almost feels like a retro Law & Order episode. That is showcased during the tense but polite interrogations between mother and daughter; Abby and York, who plays her character with a satisfying blend of compassionate warmth and increasing distress, form a performance duo that brings much of the heart to the show. The momentum also chugs along nicely when York's character is confronting her father, a famous journalist played with appropriate gravitas by Kelly Hale.
Other times, the show slows to a crawl. There is more than one occasion when no one is onstage. And at least on opening night, set changes, concealed behind a black curtain, were too long, particularly since they don't appear to bring any major transformations to Jan Chapman's well-wrought retro household set design.
Director David Senatore might have been trying to create suspense and slowly build tension. This works in some cases, but after a while, the lurches add up and the show, more than 21/2 hours long, plods. Some creepy music during set changes helps. (Incorporating even more atmospheric music into the actual body of the show might help, too. In moments when the silence is loud, a soundtrack would be welcome.)
Bright spots in acting gave the show some much needed zest. There is a shared sense of secret villainy between Abby's Rhoda and the apartment's maintenance man, Leroy Jessup (played with rough and tumble creepiness by Greg Waltermire), and particularly Mary Anne Mathews as the drunk, distraught mess of a mother whose son falls victim to Rhoda. Rita DaVega has some promising moments as a friend of the family, Monica Breedlove, though she could achieve even more if she would just relax and sink her teeth into Breedlove's well-drawn humor.
Many times, however, the ensemble seems flat, merely saying lines rather than feeling them. This might be attributed to a case of opening-night nerves.
Senatore could rev up the tempo and tighten performances, but he redeems himself in his handling of the show's final plot twists. Thursday's audience members were jumping out of their seats one moment and gasping the next.