In “Frozen,” a play centered on human interaction, actors explore challenging social issues without once interacting physically with each other.
The Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca will present the play, which follows Nancy (Anne Marie Cummings), a British mother whose 10-year-old daughter disappears. After introductory monologues, her life intertwines with Agnetha (Judith Andrew), who studies serial killers in England, and Ralph (Ruby Max Fury), the man who kidnapped, molested and killed her daughter.
The Readers’ Theatre’s staging of the play, like the group’s previous productions, uses only chairs and music stands. The three actors read their lines off scripts in binders. Next to them, Zachary Sweet plays the cello and Payal Ballaya reads the stage directions aloud.
The actors use only a suitcase, phone and child’s toy for props, miming a laptop, cup of water and service button on an airplane. In the first act, the actors mostly face the audience, even when speaking with each other. As the show reaches its climax in the second act, they talk face-to-face for important moments, but even physical interactions are pantomimed separately.
Non-existent scenery, simple lighting, minimal costuming and a lack of blocking allow all the performers to concentrate on their goal: conveying the substance of the script without extra frills. This approach, however, leaves the audience to decide critical points for themselves.
Andrew said she admires how the staging pushes audience members.
“I like the fact that it makes us and the audience wait to see any connection until Act Two,” she said. “It’s strange not to move around.”
She said having scripts on stage is a safety net more than a crutch, but she hopes to memorize a few more scenes before the premiere. Fury said he is working to get through scenes without looking at the script, which he said will make his brutal character more thrilling to watch in performance.
“It’s a wonderful challenge to work between a performance and reading,” Fury said.
Cummings, artistic director of the Readers’ Theatre, said the compelling script pushed her to produce “Frozen” as the opening show of the season. She said its monologue-centric nature lends itself to the understated drama of The Readers’ Theatre while bringing important issues to the forefront of the production.
“I picked it because I read it in [the early] 2000s… [Then] my friend directed it,” she said. “Educational and entertaining, it taught me something about criminals.”
The play was first performed in England in 1998 and made it to Broadway in 2004, when it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Despite critically positive reviews, not many new productions have been staged because of the subject matter. But that’s exactly what drew Cummings to the show.
“I like plays that combine everything,” she said. “It’s not dead entertainment, but thought-provoking — a different opinion on things we don’t like to think about.”
Cummings directs the show with the assistance of Tim Perry. In the development period, she also led the work on character accents. The rehearsal period for this production was slightly longer than the usual few meetings for the style due to the accents and sensitive nature of the plot. During the final rehearsals and performances, Perry will supervise the runs with Alex Crenshaw, stage manager, and offer constructive criticism to the actors, since Cummings needs to remain in character.
All the players said they found themselves captivated by the story and characters.
For Ballaya, the play depicts something she deals with every day. As a professional therapist for 35 years, she has worked with perpetrators, victims and families, like the character Agnetha.
Andrew said she appreciates the many overlapping themes of the play.
“It’s so complicated,” she said. “The characters are all so vivid and multilayered. As an actor, that is so wonderful.”
The actors, with experience acting throughout the Ithaca area and beyond, approached their roles differently.
Andrew researched Dorothy Otnow Lewis, the psychiatrist who her character is based on, to understand her personal and professional life and how they affected each other. She said her performance strives to exemplify the stress of such work and ultimately makes Agnetha a lovable, but obstinate character.
Fury came to the Readers’ Theatre looking for greater opportunity and found himself playing an electrifying character.
“I love Ralph,” Fury said. “I love that he doesn’t know how damaged he is. He looks at the other side of the coin of deviance, but only because he got caught. That’s why he becomes sympathetic.”
Even with the compelling characters, it’s the weighty ideas brought up during the play that will remain with audience members long after the curtain falls, Andrew said.
“I like the controversy of it,” she said. “I don’t like safe or boring plays. There are controversial theories and ideas that will draw people to it.”
If You Go
When: 8 p.m. Friday and
6:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Space, 700 W. Buffalo St.
How much: $12