"You're just too good to be true," coos the father of angelic Rhoda Penmark with unwitting accuracy. Meanwhile, Rhoda's mom — with a great deal more perception than her husband — is wondering if her picture-perfect preteen is a murderer.
In "The Bad Seed," onstage at Breakthrough Theatre, director Wade Hair has done an admirable job of striking a delicate balance between campy comedy and psychological horror.
The camp factor comes into play in part because of a 1956 filmed version of Maxwell Anderson's story, first published as novel in 1954 and then adapted by Anderson as a play in 1955. That '56 novel — which significantly changed the ending of the book and play — has become something of a cult classic, and Hair plays to that element in the audience with a few well-placed winks … or creepy grins as the case may be.
Late in the game, the playwright tries to jam a nature-vs.-nurture philosophical discussion into the rising sense of unease, a conceit that surely worked better in the novel than on stage. But it doesn't detract from the action for long.
Tom Larkin's sound design heightens the tension with sinister background music and the harsh ring of a 1950s telephone. The innocence of the '50s is charmingly depicted in Karen Edwards-Hill's costumes and Tabitha Rox's hairstyles.
A few of the supporting players show their lack of stage experience with stiffer-than-necessary line readings, but the actors at the core of the story strike the right tone. Sharon Barbour Tedder is a comical motormouth with a million-dollar smile and never-ending advice. Sarah Phillips, in pearls and gloves, is delightfully dripping with chilly Southern propriety as Rhoda's schoolteacher.
As Rhoda's mother, Jennifer Rea shows her frayed nerves all over her careworn face. Two actresses share the role of Rhoda; the night I attended, Katie Mecca shone with a simpering radiance that could quickly give way to petulant fury.
After the tragic and mysterious death of a classmate, our lovely little Rhoda skips into her living room, humming a jaunty little tune, and casually starts lacing up her roller skates as a faint smile hangs on her lips.
Bad seed, indeed.
'The Bad Seed'
• What: A Breakthrough Theatre production of Maxwell Anderson's drama
• Length: 2:15, including intermission
• When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through March 11
• Where: Breakthrough Theatre, 419A W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park
• Tickets: $18; $15 seniors; $12 students; $10 Mondays
• Call: 407-920-4034Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun