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THEATER: "Frozen"

The cold, hard truth

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In honor of its 35th year, Geva Theatre tried something different. In lieu of its usual Nextstage season, it partnered with the Community Foundation for the Rochester TheatreFest. Over the course of its season, TheatreFest is bringing in 14 other local theater groups to use Geva's smaller, secondary stage to highlight the area's diverse theater landscape, and to get the groups some extra attention.

Few of the participants are more deserving than Shipping Dock, which routinely stages thought-provoking, well-acted dramas in its Visual Studies Workshop space. Shipping Dock's selection for TheatreFest, Bryony Lavery's "Frozen," gives people a good feel for the kind of gripping, challenging plays the company usually performs. Unfortunately, some flawed performances do a less exemplary job conveying the troupe's usual quality.

"Frozen" opens innocently enough as its three central characters launch into seemingly unconnected monologues. Agnetha, an over-anxious American, prepares for a flight. Nancy, a mother in Britain, tends to her flowerbeds while discussing her young daughters. And Ralph, an odd, tic-riddled man, makes some contemptuous comments about women. But things quickly shift to a much darker place when Nancy's youngest daughter goes missing, and it becomes clear that Ralph is her abductor - and that he's done this before.

The three characters remain separate for much of the first act. Nancy updates us on the search for her missing daughter, Agnetha flies overseas while experiencing a personal meltdown of her own, and Ralph talks obliquely about his skill as a pedophile and serial killer. Eventually he slips up, is imprisoned, and the fate of Nancy's daughter becomes brutally, undeniably clear.

From that point the characters start to interact, as we discover that Agnetha is an American psychiatrist who specializes in researching serial killers. She has flown to England to study Ralph and give a presentation on her overall findings. Nancy, meanwhile, wrestles with feeling too much and too little all at once, and the action comes to a head when she and Ralph have their inevitable jailhouse meeting.

"Frozen" won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Play, and it deserves the accolades. It takes us on a disturbing journey into a damaged mind and challenges the audience to reconsider its stance on mental illness. How do we punish someone for a crime they didn't choose to commit, but rather were biologically compelled to perpetrate?

More universally, it explores how people can become prisoners of their emotions. After navigating a barrage of emotions after the initial revelation about her daughter, Nancy becomes paralyzed by anger and resentment and finds herself stuck in the same place for 20 years. Meanwhile, Agnetha wrestles with a tragedy of her own, unable to get on with her life thanks to an additional layer of guilt. At first her personal story seems almost an afterthought, but ultimately it makes a lot of sense: while few of us (fortunately) can identify with a mother grieving the rape and murder of her daughter, almost of all us can sympathize with the regret of a stupid indiscretion.

Director Barbara Biddy does a good job bringing the complex action to life; the play works especially well when Agnetha (Kerry Young) switches back and forth from interviewing Ralph (Kevin Sweeney) in jail to delivering her findings at a lectern. Young manages to present the quasi-jargon naturally and authoritatively, and her character's thesis is just as fascinating as the drama unfolding around it. Sweeney is chilling as Ralph, and it says a lot about the actor and the play that the character comes off even partially sympathetic even after committing unthinkable acts. And as Nancy, Patricia Lewis dominates the show, bringing both commendable strength and heartbreaking vulnerability, keeping it all totally believable as she ping-pongs between every conceivable emotion. It's a bravura performance.

The main flaw with the production - and I hate to even mention it - is the accents. Accents are tough, period, and I try to give lots of leeway where they're concerned. The actors here clearly put a lot of work into making theirs believable. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work. Lewis fares better, although you can practically see how much energy she's putting into being believably British. But Sweeney drifts between a Scottish brogue and Jamaican patter, and at times it took me completely out of the play. (As did the intrusive sound effects, but on a much lower level.) It's especially frustrating since the actors have to have accents because the play has to be set in the U.K. to work. (The British abolished the death penalty years ago, and that becomes a plot point). Still, it's something that can be overcome, and shouldn't deter newcomers to Shipping Dock from checking out a fantastic local group.รก

Frozen

Through March 9

Shipping Dock Theatre

Part of the Rochester TheatreFest

Geva Theatre Nextstage, 75 Woodbury Blvd.

$15 | 232-4382, gevatheatrecenter.org

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