In 'Frozen,' a New Queen of Pain

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 25, 2006

A new mom has taken up residence at Studio Theatre, and she proves to be a terrific addition to the tight little acting family of "Frozen," Bryony Lavery's gripping probe of a serial killer's psyche.

After Studio decided to extend the run of this dynamic offering -- performances have been added through June 4 -- the company had to replace the superb Nancy Robinette, who had a commitment to appear in Round House Theatre's "A Body of Water." Fortunately for Studio, Kimberly Schraf was available.

Although Schraf's stoic portrayal of the mother of a murdered child alters the show's chemistry ever so subtly, her approach represents a shift in -- rather than a lessening of -- the play's startling effect.

Because theaters in Washington typically schedule shows for runs of three to six weeks, there's rarely a call for replacement actors. On occasion, though, some companies -- such as Studio and Ford's Theatre -- can build extra room into their seasons. In even fewer instances, theaters are required to recast a role when an actor has other jobs lined up.

"Frozen" now offers an opportunity to see whether (and how) a major personnel change causes major upheaval -- and allows a theater-goer to savor anew the performances of those who've remained. In this case, it means developing an even deeper appreciation for the contributions of the two actors who complete the play's psychological triangle: MaryBeth Wise, as a forensic psychiatrist with her own neurotic entanglements, and especially Andrew Long, whose embodiment of the vain, twisted spirit of a child killer grows more fascinating each time you experience it.

The casting stakes are particularly high in a play that seeks so painstakingly to detail the pathology of a devastating crime. In a series of interwoven monologues, "Frozen" attempts a portrait of the clinical and emotional components of the murder, as they are explained to us by Long's Ralph, Schraf's Nancy and Wise's Agnetha, the last an American researcher who comes to an English prison to study Ralph. Yet for all Agnetha's scientific theorizing about the mind of the serial killer, the more visceral reactions of Ralph and Nancy are the ones that offer the clearest windows on what happened, and why.

It's a measure of the strength of Lavery's play and David Muse's production that the performances of Robinette and Schraf are nearly equally effective. Lavery takes us all through the stages of Nancy's torment, from the early days of her daughter's disappearance to the discovery of her body, to her jailhouse meeting with Ralph years later, when she's gained strength and wisdom. By play's end, she's prepared to forgive, and wants to introduce Ralph to the concept of penance.

Schraf's Nancy is wearier, more introverted than Robinette's, and this sense of self-containment works fine for the character. The wounds and scars are all still apparent. Robinette is an actress who beseeches you more impishly than Schraf. As a result, the lighter moments were a bit less encumbered in Robinette's portrayal.

The divergent effect is clearest during a scene late in Act 2, in which Nancy, now separated from her husband, makes a surprising confession: She has been on a date. Perhaps because there's been more of a cloud over Schraf, the admission seems more to come from out of the blue.

That, however, is a minor difference, for Schraf's Nancy is an endearing creation. Nancy's metamorphosis from paralyzing anger to acceptance and self-possession is once again skillfully rendered. Schraf's resolve in the encounter with Ralph is handled with an admirable balance of tenderness and firmness. After Ralph, testing the limits of Nancy's credulity regarding her daughter's murder, remarks ludicrously, "I don't think I hurt her," Schraf's succinct comeback -- "You did" -- is delivered with devastating finality.

Returning to "Frozen," you appreciate how deeply dependent each performance is on the others. Although some analysts of the play view Agnetha as the weakest role, it becomes clearer with each viewing that a sense of the ineffectual is built into her nature.

Not only is Agnetha's personal life a mess, but her professional judgment also is questionable. She spends hours in academic exercises -- such as measuring the circumference of a killer's head -- when it takes Nancy a single session to bore to the core and discover that Ralph is human, that he has a conscience.

Wise is adept at exposing the cracks in Agnetha's scholarly facade, at letting us see the wreckage that lies beneath.

Long's accomplishment is the more remarkable: a Ralph who's terrifying but no mere monster, a complex man driven by childhood demons, childish obsession and narcissistic compulsion.

The rewards of a second visit to this "Frozen" stoke the imagination for what might be encountered on a third.

Frozen, by Bryony Lavery. Directed by David Muse. Approximately two hours. Through June 4 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit .

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