Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Bad Seed | Local Stage Production Doesn't Disappoint This Cult Film Lover

Patty McCormick as Rhoda in 1956 film The Bad Seed

Last weekend I finally had the opportunity to see a theatrical production of The Bad Seed.  When asked by my son who escorted me  to classify the Bad Seed,  I first called it a black comedy because of the movies high camp value, but clarified it later to be a comedic thriller. The intensity of the subject of serial killing family traits passed down to our children requires some comedic relief. My first experience with this unsettling story was by means of the Mervyn LeRoy directed  1956 horror film. Hands down in my opinion it has the best “gothcha” ending ever!  The ending is so critical that the film includes this final title card:

“You have just seen a motion picture whose theme dares to be startlingly different. May we ask that you do not divulge the unusual climax of this story. Thank you.”
Up to date smiling kiddie sociapath

The film, The Bad Seed  was decades ahead of similar contemporary thrillers such as The Good Son (starring Macaulay Culkin) which also gave us a sensational  surprise ending  to a mother’s slow realization she has spawned a child psychopath.  By means of the supporting characters, the mystery writer Reginald Tasker and Christine's father, Richard Bravo, a highly respected journalist,  there was a more intelligent discussion of pediatric sociapathy. It was somewhat obvious from the claustrophobic  settings and the theatricality of the dialogue that the film had been adapted from a stage play. I would eventually learn from the classic movie blogosphere that the 1956 movie had an entirely different ending than the Maxwell Anderson’s play it was based upon.  (The play was based upon William March's 1954 novel of same name.) As you might have guessed, the constraints of the Hays Code determined the ending as well as a few significant omissions from the original script.

Lucy Turner performance as Rhoda measures up!
I might never have had the opportunity to see the stage version of this obscure cult classic, if I hadn’t made the recent move to Nashville where the small non profit Street Theatre Company was reviving the play. Although I looked forward to discovering what the film had to change from the play, I worried that this local stage production would not be able to overcome my expectations for one of my favorite villainous character of all times.

Considering the fact that the film confined most of its action to the living room, the simply constructed one room set at the Street Theatre Company which is barely more than a small warehouse with folding chairs and theatrical lighting was not too much of a stretch of the imagination.  One by one the adult characters appeared on stage in very authentic and memorable vintage costumes and hairstyles. The live performance had the advantage of using color to distinguish characters. I noted the muted olive green tones used for the passive character of the mother. On the other hand the flamboyant loquacious Ms Breedlove was usually costumed in sophisticated black and white attire which I happen to note always had a black and white diagonal printed fabric incorporated into her accessory scarf or hat. Perhaps I am over analyzing, but kudos to the costume designer if she deliberately made those design choices based on the characters. 

Lucy Turner performance as Rhoda measures up!
Finally, little Miss Perfect, Rhoda Penmark takes center stage ready to go to the school picnic in her red pinafore and red shoes with the murderous metal taps  she suggested so they don’t get worn out. Before speaking her first line I was already absolutely wowed by the young  10-year-old actress  Lucy Turner’s perfect posture and expression  which  met every expectation I had for my favorite child sociopath.  Then she nails it with Rhoda’s signature line,”What will you give me for a basket of kisses?” Throughout the play her obsessive perfectionism is revealed by her constant habit of making sure her red ribboned blonde pigtails lie perfectly on each shoulder. One of the magical elements of this stage production was the inclusion of a musical jingle to highlight each instance of this specific tidy habit. I felt totally manipulated by the variations in the speed of the few well placed notes from the creepy children’s tune Claire de la Lune which was also used in the film. I don’t know much about the original Broadway production for comparison, but the sparse simple music score provided an important layer of suspense to this production.

Linda Speir’s “unsanitized” performance of the perfectly 50s costumed Monica Breedlove was the highlight of the evening. With perfect Southern sophistication she spewed her exhaustive knowledge of Freudian theory and sexual deviancy without Hayes code restrictions. She even accuses her brother of being a closet homosexual and herself of subconscious incestuous thoughts. Miss Breedlove and Leroy provided the comic relief from the serious discussions of sociopathy being environmental versus genetic by writers, Tasker and Bravo. The heart wrenching drama was also well played by both grieving mothers, Adele Akin as Mrs. Daigle, mother of the drowned boy and Lisa Marie Wright as Mrs. Pembroke, mother of the suspected murderer.

All in all, the stage version paralleled the film sans the sex talk right up until the ending. I am no theatrical critic, just a classic movie lover that happens to rate The Bad Seed amongst her favorite campy horror flicks. The Street Theatre Company pulled off a great production that kept me on the edge of my seat through the wonderful performances of a great cast accompanied by spine tingling sound and music. Not only was I not disappointed I found this play just as "thrilling" and "shocking" as the film. Very impressed!


Although I have heard many criticize the movie ending which could not allow a murderer to survive unpunished due to Hayes Code, I personally felt more satisfaction from the movie ending. The two versions remain the same until after Mrs. Penmark attempts to permanently put her daughter to sleep and take her own life by gunshot. BTW I almost wet my pants with the gunshot in dark at the play. Anyway, in the film the next scene becomes a hospital waiting room instead of the living room after the funeral for the play. The dialogue for both scenes remains almost identical and both scenes end with the revelation that Rhoda survived the sleeping pill overdose. That is the end of the surprise ending in the stage version. The Mother has just been buried but the murderous child lives on. Now that’s horror. But in the film adaptation, I really liked the fact that the kiddy psychopath was so obsessed with getting that medal that she sneaks out during a terrible storm after methodically getting dressed in (what I imagined despite black and white film) her perfect yellow rain coat, galoshes and umbrella to go out to the pier and get justice…a lightning strike from the almighty. Perhaps it’s not as horrific an ending, and perhaps it’s awful to admit but it’s a LMAO moment for me every time!

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