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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Bad Seed
Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Jaws: Live, Abridged and Completely Underfunded, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde , Titanic, The World Goes 'Round, and Fun Home


Virginia Olivieri and Anora Biggs
Photo by Renee Ashlock
Maxwell Anderson's 1954 psychological thriller The Bad Seed tells the story of a sweet and loving 8-year-old girl who may also be a cold-blooded killer responsible for a series of tragic deaths. Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre's production is full of suspenseful touches and has a talented cast, including Anora Biggs who is very good as the possible diabolical and deadly killer.

The play was adapted from William March's novel and gets its title from the parable about how the bad seed can sprout and reappear in future generations as an evil individual. Here that bad seed may have grown up to be a smug and content murderer. Or, more specifically, an 8-year-old murderess. The story focuses on the slightly eerie and somewhat suspenseful tale of young Rhoda and her parents Christine and Kenneth, and the horrible murders that happen to several people close to Rhoda. Set in the living room of the Penmark family's ground floor apartment, the Penmarks seem to have a perfect life with a loving set of parents and a kind and considerate daughter. The plot follows the events that happen after the death of an innocent young schoolboy who drowns after having been awarded a school penmanship medal, an award that Rhoda desperately wanted to win. Was it a strange and unfortunate accident or is the sweet and innocent Rhoda a cunning, revenge seeking killer?

While some of the dialogue is a bit stilted and a few moments in the play border on melodrama, Anderson's script builds dramatically and is filled with enough suspense and chilling moments to keep you engaged. The majority of this cast, under Diane Senffner's confident direction, deliver layered performances along with numerous chills and even some humor. As Rhoda, Anora Biggs projects the demeanor of a perfectly modest, sweet and polite young lady. Yet we quickly see that underneath her adorable exterior is a cunning, calculating and devious girl with a cold heart. Biggs downplays most of her lines, which works expertly to instill a sense of chilly realism to the role, and she knows how to display the sweet, sunny and smiling face of an angel-faced demon child.

As Christine, Rhoda's mother, Virginia Olivieri exhibits, at first, a pure love, adoration, and deep concern for her daughter. However, once Christine begins to suspect her daughter's involvement in the horrible events, Olivieri's expressions start to fill with worry and her distraught glances are infused with realism. Olivieri's portrayal expertly projects the confusion and questions she has concerning her daughter's possible misdeeds as well as Christine's guilt in having some possible culpability in the events. This is a rich character who runs the gamut of many emotional changes throughout the play, and Olivieri delivers a nuanced performance that skillfully shows just how far a mother will go to protect her child.

Janis Webb is bright and funny as Monica, the busybody upstairs landlady who is totally charmed by Rhoda. The combination of Webb's chatty line delivery, excitable nature, and larger than life stage presence evokes a clear portrayal of this flighty amateur psychiatrist who is always mistakenly analyzing the people she meets. As Christine's father, Matthew Carey provides a serious and steady tone to this man who has some secrets in his past. Carol Bennett is good as the uptight teacher who first suspects Rhoda's responsibility in the drowning and her devilish ways, and Erica Connell is quite effective as the heartbroken, grief-stricken, distraught and desperate mother of the young boy who drowned. Robert Peters is playful as the apartment's handyman Leroy who isn't fooled by Rhoda's innocent looks, and Mark Burkett is effective as a crime writer who is very knowledgeable about homicide and the background of numerous murderers. J. Kevin Tallent, Mike Halpin and Bill Bennett provide stable performances in a few smaller roles.

While this is a talkative script with a fairly rich plot and many characters, Senffner's direction keeps the pace moving at the right speed to allow for the secrets and revelations that Anderson does a good job in foreshadowing to play out in a fairly natural way. She also derives layered performances from most of her cast, especially Biggs, Olivieri and Webb, and wisely incorporates foreboding music for both the scene changes and as an underscoring in some of the more suspenseful moments, but she never overuses these music queues which could detract from the dialogue. The simple but smart set design from Rick Sandifer and Senffner uses monochromatic shades that appear to be an homage to film noir and allow a perfect backdrop for Mickey Courtney's colorful costumes to pop. The use of pink and red hues for Christine and Rhoda's costumes adds to the dramatic and murderous foreshadowing of the plot. Lindsey Ihrig's beautiful lighting evokes the many shifts in time of day in the play.

Though The Bad Seed may have moments that border on melodrama, with a good cast and direction, Desert Stages' production projects the right balance of eerie suspense, drama, humor, comedy, and moments of shocking violence. It's a solid production of a classic suspense story.

Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre's The Bad Seed, through November 18, 2018, at Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, call 480-483-1664 or visit desertstages.org.

Director: Diane Senffner
Costume Design: Mickey Courtney
Set Design: Diane Senffner, Rick Sandifer
Lighting Design: Lindsey Ihrig
Sound Design: Dakota Erickson
Hair and Makeup Design: Virginia Olivieri
Props: Ellie Steward
Stage Manager: Kendyl Feldman

Cast: (in order of appearance):
Rhoda Penmark: Anora Biggs
Col. Kenneth Penmark: Mike Halpin
Christine Penmark: Virginia Olivieri
Monica Breedlove: Janis Webb
Emory Wages: J. Kevin Tallent
Leroy: Robert Peters
Miss Fern: Carol Bennett
Reginald Tasker: Mark Burkett
Mrs. Daigle: Erica Connell
Mr. Daigle: Bill Bennett
Bravo: Matthew Carey
Radio Announcer: Eric Mitchell


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