The instinct to avert the eyes starts early in this production of Frozen. A young woman about to leave on a trip is suddenly interrupted by a pain so incapacitating that she appears on the verge of a seizure.
Under Sean Brosnahan's direction, Agnetha (performed by Whitney Griffin) seems almost to negotiate with this agony, whenever it momentarily releases its chokehold on her. "Yes, come on," she coaxes, between the torsions that wring her upper body, until the episode has passed. Afterward, she somehow calmly composes herself, finishes her preparations and gets on with her day.
But, as British playwright Bryony Lavery is about to remind us, the human body isn't the only thing that goes rigid in response to severe physical or emotional pain: The spirit and psyche can do so as well. The playwright notes that when this happens, an even greater threat arises: the potential for damage already done to one person to be passed on and duplicated in others.
To make this point, Lavery's 1998 drama relies heavily upon recent science that has found a direct correlation between traumatic brain injury and psychopathic behavior—so much so that Frozen initially provoked accusations of plagiarism for having lifted passages (including one of its most memorable lines) from a 1997 New Yorker article about psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis and a subsequent book by Lewis herself.
As with the real doctor's work, Agnetha's battery of psychiatric tests slowly diagnose the arrested physiological and psychological development of a serial killer, named Ralph (Eric Morales), who is serving a life sentence after sexually abusing and murdering several young girls over two decades.
But Lavery goes well beyond a simple retrace of what one character terms "the Arctic Sea of the criminal mind." Frozen carefully contrasts Ralph's emotionally frozen state with psychologically similar ones that threaten the other two central characters.
The grief of losing Rhona, her 10-year-old daughter, may have motivated middle-aged Nancy to create a foundation dedicated to finding missing children, but it's slowly destroying her familial relationships. In Staci Sabarsky's performance, the shining, cold and brittle pride of Nancy's public fundraising recitals for her charity give way to frostier sentiments about life, her husband and her older daughter, Ingrid. After she has lost the last hope that Rhona might have somehow survived, we watch as Sabarsky's character all but individually tastes the words "hope, transformation and the spreading of compassion," when she reads aloud a letter Ingrid has sent her, along with Tibetan prayer flags, from a trip abroad.
Meanwhile, Agnetha's grief at the recent death of her principal co-researcher is compounded by later revelations in the text.
In minimizing the set design and technical aspects, REP's Stripped series emphasizes performances and the script, a strategy that works well for the most part in this production. True, it ignores several problems it does not solve. More than 20 years of time travel go completely unobserved between its earliest and latest scenes; occasionally, in the extended monologues that riddle the text, we also wonder exactly to whom so many of these words are directed.
Yet it's gratifying to see a script give this trio and director Brosnahan such a workout. Lavery's point is profound, and it surpasses Agnetha's observation (and writer Malcolm Gladwell's, before her) that "the difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom."
Physical and psychological pain pose a great—and at times, insurmountable—challenge, even to the most stable among us. By now, medical research has shown that the frequent presence of either, in childhood and beyond, can alter the physical structure of the brain and, with it, our most human capacities for empathy, context and judgment.
Seen in that light, these three characters ultimately don't come from different worlds. They clearly represent a continuum instead—one on which each of us shows up somewhere. Feel a chill?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Emotional icebergs."