Theater: Frozen by the Empty Spaces Theatre Co. 

Searing and chilling
Frozen by the Empty Spaces Theatre Co.
Through Nov. 8 at Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St.

Whatever emotions the Empty Spaces Theatre Co. sparks with its new production, the last would be its title: Frozen, the 2004 Tony-nominated drama by Bryony Lavery. The powerful play, directed by John DiDonna in collaboration with Dennis Neal, Seth Kubersky and Kevin G. Becker, does explore crisis reactions that lead to paralysis — if not actual, then certainly spiritual. Just three characters build the drama, slipping in and out of key dates in the chronicle of a remorseless, ice-cold pedophile and murderer.

Frozen opens with a scream, literally, as Dr. Agnetha Gottmundsdottir (Elizabeth Dean), a New Yorker of Icelandic roots, works through a panic attack on her way to the airport. As the researcher flies to England to interview serial killer Ralph Ian Wantage (Keith Kirkwood), a date flashes on the sketchy set's translucent plastic backdrop, and we're 20 years in the past with Nancy Shirley (Marty Stonerock). Brushing potting soil off her gloves, the feisty mother complains lovingly about her two lively daughters, not knowing that the youngest, Rhona, she will never see again.

Then the smarmy Wantage slips from behind the plastic sheeting and, with a few words and leers, reveals how he lures little girls into his clutches. His lilting, Scottish-inflected "hello" is as disarming as his conscience is empty; as he caresses videos of kiddie porn, Kirkwood embodies his role of society's worst nightmare.

Yet as the doctor studies the pedophile, and as the mother appears at various points during the years between her daughter's disappearance and the present, Wantage becomes a sympathetic figure. The tensions are tight and uncomfortable for the audience: Is he responsible for his actions or is he psychologically damaged — frozen into a monster by the abuse he suffered as a child?

The two women, in equally strong performances, rotate around Wantage until the mother is finally allowed to meet him. We see that her fury has transformed over the years, through a difficult grieving process. The doctor, we find out, is only beginning a grieving process for her own unexpected loss, which has unlocked unresolved feelings. But the monster, exquisitely interpreted by Kirkwood as a horribly unforgettable golem, is unable to feel anything so human.

Playwright Lavery balances the play's conflicting eras, emotions and actions well, but without an equally balanced cast, Frozen would have been slush. Instead, as Kirkwood shapes his unwitting monster, the portrayal is frigid, rigid, terrifying and terrifyingly true. Proud and smart, meticulous and conniving, his Wantage is all the more moving when Nancy sits down with him in prison and spreads out snapshots of Rhona. At first Wantage looks away; gradually, curious, he looks — then looks closer. Feral, alert in Kirkwood's superb rendition, Wantage reveals with the smallest gestures that he sees what he did, and why. Nuanced and gentle, Kirkwood's virtuosic moment of understanding brings the play's revolving action to its fiery high point and searing resolution.

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