Premiering on Broadway in December of 1954, Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed was always lurid junk science trying to fob itself off as provocative drama. Whether or not you buy into the notion that heredity can be a factor in spawning a sociopath, it’s intriguing and ironic to consider the fact that more than 50 years after the curtain first rose on The Bad Seed, the occurrence of child murderers (and worse) have only increased, and we seem no closer to an explanation. Incidents like Columbine only point to exponentially worse tragedies, and the best they can come up with is erecting metal detectors at the gates and/or supplying teachers with weaponry. That is to say: the nature or nurture debate rages on, but we still lack a strategy to protect society from cunning, ostensibly congenial maniacs.
The problem with The Bad Seed is the premise, which is not to say Director, Costume Designer, Set Designer Kyle McClaran hasn’t made a valiant, good-faith effort. Rhoda, an eight year old who is practically flawless and impossibly treacly, has come under suspicion in the death of a boy who won the only achievement medal Rhoda didn’t secure herself. She carries herself like a princess, and though she’s the only child at a school picnic wearing a dress, two teachers must pull her off of the lad, so poorly concealed is her rage. She’s intelligent and savvy enough to get away with murder, yet she tips her hand. Even after she’s had ample time to cool off, she makes amaterish mistakes.
Now. You don’t necessarily need meticulous logistical justification to make good drama, but you do need consistency. Anderson has decided, reasonably enough, that there’s more dramatic tension in a homicidal child who can pass for Heidi or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But when we see Rhoda’s behavior, she doesn’t feel genuinely kind or caring (now that would be truly chilling) but prissy and dismissive. Surely a sharp cookie like Rhoda would understand the best way to deceive others is to make yourself inconspicuous, but that wouldn’t make for for a very lively play. That being said, the decision to make Rhoda a paragon of virtue, comes off as a bit campy and contrived.
Mr. McClaran has done an admirable job with his cast and production. The set is opulent and strewn with lots of upscale jungle imagery : animal skins and paintings of fierce predatory leopards and tigers. Rhoda’s dresses are radiant, spangly and unmistakably feminine. The cast is quite versatile and effective, especially Cindy Kahn as the poor dead boy’s disconsolate mother and John Hogwood in his duel role as Colonel Penmark and Leroy. The musical cues that warn us of lurking wickedness is an interesting idea, though sometimes it seems to work better than others. Sometimes a revelation seems much more awful when it’s left to hang in the silent air.
Garland Civic Theatre presents The Bad Seed playing January 22nd-February 14th, 2015. 300 N Fifth St, Garland, Texas 75040. (972) 205-2780. www.garlandcivictheatre.org