By Dee Jae Cox
“It seemed to her suddenly that violence was an inescapable factor of the heart, perhaps the most important factor of all – an ineradicable thing that lay, like a bad seed, behind kindness, behind compassion, behind the embrace of love itself. Sometimes it lay deeply hidden, sometimes it lay close to the surface; but always it was there, ready to appear, under the right conditions, in all its irrational dreadfulness.”
― William March, The Bad Seed
Belle Sorenson Gunness, immigrated from Norway and settled in Indiana in 1881. She was a notorious woman who was believed to have murdered between twenty-five and forty men, women and children in the years spanning from 1900 through 1908. She is said to have been one of the major inspirations for William March’s award winning novel, “The Bad Seed,” published in 1954. That same year Maxwell Anderson, adapted March’s book into a Pulitzer nominated Broadway play by the same title. The Bad Seed’s most recent incarnation was directed by Steve Fisher, and presented by the Palm Canyon Theatre, October 12th – 15th.
The Bad Seed, a psychological thriller, with a dash of melodrama and a hint of film noir, takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride that seems to answer the question is evil born or made?
Rhoda Penmark, compellingly portrayed by Ava Tethal, is the perfectly mannered 1950’s 10-year-old, pretty braids and a smile that would melt your heart. Tethal embodies this character with the skill and nuance of an actress many times her age. Rhoda’s mother is the beautiful and poised housewife Christine Penmark, performed by one of the Coachella Valley’s most talented actresses, Yo Younger. Christine grew up in the ideal home with a successful father, Richard Bravo, (Larry Dyekman,) and married the perfect husband, Col Kenneth Penmark, (Allan H.Jensen,) just as all 1950’s women were encouraged to do, but her nightly dreams haunted her, leading to the revelation of a long buried secret that she finds impossible to escape.
When one of Rhoda’s schoolmate’s turns up dead, Christine begins to suspect that something is amiss in her perfect black and white world. As the mystery begins to unfold, Christine is left with a gut wrenching revelation. Younger’s heartbreaking portrayal of a woman who is slowly coming to terms with the unraveling of her perfect life is a powerful performance filled with sorrow, angst and vulnerability. Despite all of Christine’s effort, there are some things that are destined and the slow denigration of her stability is what makes The Bad Seed, excellent drama.
Morgana Corelli, as Mrs. Daigle, stumbles onto the scene filled with grief and liquor. Her blurry-eyed intoxication does not keep her from suspecting that Rhoda knows more than she’s saying about the death of Mrs. Daigle’s son. Corelli seems to be a natural in any role she undertakes and makes this sympathetic character worth watching, as she walks the line between despair, humor and intuition.
Garnett Smith, as Leroy Jessup, was a Rockstar as the mentally unstable handyman who bites off more than he can chew when he confronts Rhoda Penmark. Smith’s performance was truly riveting.
The Bad Seed, is another quality production by the Palm Canyon Theatre. I loved J.W. Layne’s set design, and Derick Shopinski’s costumes. Both elements enhanced the style and depiction of the era. If you’re looking for Broadway in the Desert, this is the place to go. Next in their upcoming season is Priscilla Queen of the Desert – Oct 27, 2017 – Nov 12, 2017.
The Palm Canyon Theatre is located at 538 North Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs.
For Reservations: Box Office: (760) 323-5123 – www.palmcanyontheatre.org
Dee Jae Cox is a playwright, director and producer. She is the Cofounder and Artistic Director of The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project.