By Thom deMartino
Nature or nurture? Is evil learned, or is it possible to really be “born bad”?
These are the questions posed by “The Bad Seed”, directed by Lenore Stjerne, and now playing at Westminster Community Playhouse. It’s the mid-1950s in a suburb of the American south, and the young Rhoda Penmark (Maya Somers) seems the perfect obedient little daughter. Though her loving father, Colonel Kenneth Penmark (Ted Burke) is leaving to report for duty, she’s still perky and precocious, has a constant radiant smile on her face, is studious to the point of obsessive, and seems an all-around delightful child… At least, until you get on her bad side.
Both her devoted mother Christine (Veronique Merrill Warner) and her teacher Miss Fern (Mary-Pat Gonzlez) have observed how resentful the little girl is at not having won the gold medal in penmanship at school… perhaps even to a vengeful degree. So when a mysterious tragedy befalls the winning pupil on a class trip, her mother just can’t shake the nagging feeling that her little angel may have had something to do with it.
While Christine keeps her suspicions to herself, she does make some casual inquiries to her friends about the nature of psychopathy — including her upstairs neighbor Monica Breedlove (Candy Beck), who fancies herself a lay psychologist (claiming to have known Sigmund Freud) and can’t help but analyze everyone around her, including herself:
“I looked into the bottom of my soul” declares Monica, “…what a spectacle!”
Her brother Emery (Gil Morales) and their friend Reggie Tasker (Richard DeVicariis), both true-crime buffs, regale the ladies with tales of unrepentant “operators” who managed to escape justice — for a time, anyway. But a story about one who got away profoundly unsettles Christine… and hits a little too close to home.
It’s said that true evil is the absence of empathy — but that can’t possibly apply to a child as charming as little Rhoda…could it?
“The Bad Seed” could be a profoundly disturbing tale, and a timely one as well. When looking at the questionable behavior of children and remembering that this was written in the 1950s, some of the behaviors that we see the little girl portray might not seem so foreign to us today… almost commonplace, to a degree. The superb, unsettling performance by Maya Somers gets under your skin, with how deftly she spins her fabrications, adapting her stories for what knowledge her listener has: or how her mood turning on a dime, such as when the supposedly slow-witted — but secretly nefarious — handyman Leroy (a brilliantly menacing Joe Yacoubian) confronts her as a kindred spirit.
There’s clearly excellent chemistry between the cast, with first-rate performances all around: but it is certainly the female players who dominate in this production. Not just Beck’s bombastic Monica, Warner’s haunted and conflicted Christine, and Somers’ eerily persuasive and charming Rhoda, but of special note is Cassidy McMillan’s moving portrayal of Hortense Daigle, the mother of the unfortunate child from the field trip: drunkenly searching for some kind of closure, and making no excuses for her grief or self-medication to cope with the loss of her son.
There are but a handful of performances left of this remarkable Westminster Community Playhouse production of “The Bad Seed”: something special for fans of true crime, psychology, and those who plumb the depths of the human soul.
“The Bad Seed”, Maya Somers, Veronique Merrill Warner and Cassidy McMillan star in the unsettling tale of whether morality can be inborn, or even absent from the human soul. Now playing through Sunday, July 28 at the Westminster Community Playhouse, 7272 Maple St, Westminster, CA 92683. Ticketing information available online at http://www.wcpstage.com .
Categories: Arts & Leisure