Review: ‘The Bad Seed’ at Zemfira Stage

Zemfira Stage is producing an uncommon sighting in the DC area: a production of the offbeat mid-1950’s play, The Bad Seed by Maxwell Anderson. An unconventional nightmare of a melodrama especially for the time when it was first produced, The Bad Seed might now be described as purposefully chilly, not unlike a Twilight Zone episode.

Tom Kearney as Leroy Jessup and Dara Kearney as Rhoda Penmark in ‘The Bad Seed.’ Photo courtesy of Zemfira Stage.

The Bad Seed is a drama with quite a pedigree, even if it has faded from regular revivals in the DMV. So, some background. William March’s 1954 best-selling novel “The Bad Seed” was adapted by Maxwell Anderson into a 1954 Broadway play. It then became a major, now cult-like, 1956 movie.

As a novel, The Bad Seed was a National Book Award finalist. As a Broadway play, the production starred Nancy Kelly (who won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play as well as a very young Patty McCormack and Eileen Heckart, both of whom were nominated for Tony Awards). The Bad Seed was even shortlisted for the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (losing to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). As a movie, Kelly, McCormack and Heckart reprised their Broadway roles. Each received an Oscar nomination.

The Bad Seed “thriller” storyline is a dark one about evil and its possible genesis as embodied in a pre-teen girl. Is evil and having not much of a soul or empathy something “caused” by nature or nurture (as perhaps as Freud might ask back in his hey-days)?

In The Bad Seed, could a cute, sweet, “perfect” preteen girl who gives off such an aura of old-fashioned innocence do bad things? What would those adults in the little girl’s life, who describe her as “too good to be true,” think? And what about her mother and father? Could they ever suspect that their precious only child was, shall we say, psychologically disturbed? And remember, we are talking about the mid-1950’s when censorship and community values were more ripe.

Adding to the unsettling storyline is this: the play takes some major swipes at the dominance of an affluent white culture in America. It also brings front-and-center issues of bullying long before it was a catchphrase. In The Bad Seed, the bullying is of a young boy by a preteen girl over a penmanship medal.

Under Samantha Dawn Franklin’s direction, the Zemfira production of The Bad Seed is no camp artifact played for laughs. It is played straight-up with a heavier throw-back, pre-Method style of acting and deliberate pacing. With a cast of eleven, the script provides some juicy female roles, and one particularly creepy male character, each with plenty of ripe lines. I will not give away anything to ruin your enjoyment if you decide to see the production.

The featured character is the formidable young child Rhoda Penmark portrayed by Dara Kearney (Kearney is a seventh grader). In dialogue where Rhoda lets her true evil appear, Kearney is one not to be trifled with. Even not winning a penmanship medal can set her off. Her eyes flare and become steely, her manner becomes cold and menacing. Other times, Kearny is asked to be quite sugary and artificial, perhaps to a fault.

Christine Penmark, Rhoda’s mother, is a subtle, not over-the-top presence as portrayed by Samantha Kearney. Ever so slowly, Christine pieces together that her daughter Rhoda may not be an innocent child but someone full of deceptions and lies. Along with suspicions about her own daughter, Christine also has some secrets of her own to come to terms with that add to her fraught life. What she does with all her new knowledge form the major pillars and twists in the production.

Denise Wilson-Morgan plays Monica Breedlove, the Penmarks’ landlady as well as Christine’s confidante. The character is a generally pretentious busy-body and know-it-all. In her own way, Monica Breedlove is an enabler; she adores the child Rhoda, even wishing the child were hers. Rhoda can do no wrong.

Sally Flores as Miss Fern. Photo courtesy of Zemfira Stage

Other characters that caught my attention were Leroy Jessup as portrayed by a top-notch Tom Kearney. Leroy is a rather coarse, sometimes leering maintenance man who sees Rhoda as a kindred spirit. As the play progresses, Jessup is one of the only adults who notices that Rhoda is unlike other children. In his portrayal, Kearney becomes like one of the characters out of Deliverance. There is also Nikki Summons as Mrs. Daigle, the mother whose son “accidentally” drowned on a school outing with Rhoda. Mrs. Daigle becomes an alcoholic over her son’s death. When Summons appears as Mrs. Daigle, she takes over the stage with her pain and suffering. And there is Sally Flores as a private school superintendent, Miss Fern. The character has few lines, but Flores presents such a submissive nature to the authority of the more affluent, with sad eyes and posture to match. She knows more than she says. She fears what she knows and suspects.

The set design (Samantha Dawn Franklin), sound design (Erin DeCaprio) and lighting design (Laurie Wessely) successfully represent the mid-1950’s era.

If you have never seen The Bad Seed, the Zemfira Stage production may be your opportunity. The Bad Seed may also be an acquired taste for those who have heard the expression “the bad seed” but have never seen a live theater production of the play that helped coin the expression.  

Running Time: Two hours and 3o minutes, with one intermission

The Bad Seed plays through January 27, 2019, at Zemfira Stage performing at The James Lee Community Center Theater – 2855 Annandale Road in Falls Church, VA. For tickets, purchase at the door (cash or check only) or reserve in advance by email (ZemfiraStage@gmail.com) or phone (703-615-6626).

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