By Jill Gilmer
A series of asymmetrical screens line the back wall of the set of Frozen. During the play, the screens project rays of blue and gray light, appropriate hues for this dark and disturbing story. But as the cast takes its bow, the screens change to a collection of light and dark still photos surrounding the single image that is in focus: a vibrant amber sunrise.
Audience members who quickly exit the theatre may miss this visual synopsis of the play’s underlying theme; forgiveness causes dark experiences to fade into the light and offers the promise of hope.
The light display also mirrored the journey of characters Nancy and Ralph. Set in modern day England, Frozen follows the lives of Nancy, Ralph and Agnetha over 25 years. Nancy is an angry and grief-stricken mother whose 10-year-old daughter was sexually abused and killed. Ralph is the flippant inmate convicted of the girl’s murder, and Agnetha is a quirky psychiatrist who chose Ralph as the subject of her research study. In one scene, the audience is cast in the role of students at Agnetha’s lecture on “crimes of evil vs. crimes of illness.” We are asked to consider the evidence supporting the theory that some offenders are biologically incapable of remorse, and are, thus, unforgivable. Ralph appears to be a prime illustration of this theory. Many years after her daughter’s death, Nancy visits Ralph in prison and offers her unsolicited forgiveness. The visit simultaneously leads to a life-changing emotional catharsis for Nancy while setting off a destructive wave of guilt in Ralph.
The powerful images and topics presented in Frozen appeal more to the intellect than the heart. The characters are introduced through a string of monologs. But it is only when the live action begins that the audience begins to feel a connection with them. Laura Gordon brings a stirring complexity to Agnetha. However, the rest of the cast fails to engage the audience on an emotional level. These “frozen characters” may have been consciously built into Bryony Lavery’s outstanding script. The Broadway production was nominated for four Tony awards in 2004 and the script was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
Despite this shortcoming, the play soars in its ability to provoke thought on the origins of morality, the prudence of capital punishment and the limits of forgiveness. The combination of intelligent writing and the subtle spiritual message of forgiveness explain why this is a widely-produced play. Its compelling theme left me speculating whether the tragic turn in Ralph’s life would have been avoided if he had been able to forgive himself. VS
Frozen runs through February 18 in the Steimke Theatre at The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, 108 E. Wells Street, 414-224-9490. Tickets can be purchased on-line at milwaukeerep.com. Ticket prices range from $22.50 to $42.50.