City Circle - "Come with an open mind."
That was Matthew Smith's response when I asked him what audiences should know about City Circle's newest production, Frozen by Bryony Lavery. It's not that Smith expects Iowa City area audiences to have closed minds, but he recognizes that the subject matter of this play is not always easy to take.
The play explores the idea of forgiveness for unforgivable acts by examining the story of a mother whose child was abused and murdered, the psychologist who posits that forgiveness is possible, and the killer who expects no forgiveness for his actions. Lavery expertly weaves these three characters's stories through monologues and scenes into a tapestry that is sure to leave audiences mulling over that central question - are these acts worthy of forgiveness?
Smith, who plays the killer Ralph, has an understandably hard time finally admitting that, yes, he does believe his character is entitled to forgiveness. "It's a discussion of grace. Everyone is entitled to forgiveness. But it doesn't excuse his crime. Doesn't make him less brutal or evil." Actors need to empathize with their character to play him, so it only speaks to Smith's commitment that he can reach that conclusion.
When trying to understand the character of Ralph, this production had a secret weapon. The character of Agnetha, the neuropsychiatrist who studies Ralph, is portrayed by Deborah Gideon, a neuropsychologist in real life. The main difference between the two professions, says Gideon, is that neuropsychiatrists are trained to be physicians. Otherwise, both professions study the brain and how behavior is produced.
Director Steven Hunt took full advantage of Gideon's expertise during the first two weeks of rehearsal which involved simply reading and discussing the play. "Matt did research, Paula (Grady, who plays Nancy, the mother of the victim) explored inwardly the issues of her character, and of course Deborah brought in a lot of information," says Hunt. Grady concurs, saying "[Deborah] brought some great insights about the effects of abuse, emotional and physical, on the brain."
Gideon cites a study done of Romanian orphans who were raised in an orphanage where only their most basic needs were addressed. The children were rarely picked up and had very little human interaction. Consequently, MRIs of these children's brains showed a significant lack of development. This evidence of a physical effect from a psychological attack is the heart of Ralph's case as this fictional murderer suffered child abuse which affected the development of his brain.
Gideon says the play talks about "crimes of evil versus crimes of illness and if it's a symptom, not sin, then should we reconsider the difference between right and wrong?" Smith suggests that the stereotype of the killer is a "mean, crazy, just evil" person, but "the beauty of the play is that it shows all of that and the humanity of him too."
Each of these actors is experienced in bringing complex roles to the stage. Gideon did many shows in South Carolina before coming to Iowa and participating in City Circle's New Play Festival and the Mount Vernon/Lisbon Community Theatre's New Play Festival earlier this year. Smith most recently performed in Theatre Cedar Rapids' production of Angels in America as well as The Music Man and Seussical the Musical with City Circle. Grady has worked with City Circle, Dreamwell, ICCT, and Riverside as well as her own theater company, Moongarden. Hunt has directed for theatres across the country including Creede Repertory Theatre (Colorado), Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre (North Carolina), The Egyptian Theatre (Utah), Vacant Lot Players (Colorado) and the Hilton Head Playhouse (South Carolina).
Hunt points out that each character has a journey to take in the play. Gideon's character Agnetha moves from analytical to emotional as she confronts for the first time what's she only studied in books. Smith's character journeys toward remorse for his crimes and Grady's character has perhaps the most difficult journey toward forgiveness. Where each character ends his or her journey may send audiences on a journey of their own as they consider the questions raised by this thought-provoking play.
The play will be performed at Northwest Junior High September Sept. 28-29 and Oct. 5-6 at 8 p.m., and Sept. 30 and Oct. 7 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $14 for students and seniors and $17 for adults and are available at J. Frahm Music and the Coralville Recreation Center or by calling 319-248-1750. For more information visit City Circle Acting Company's website.
[In the above picture, cast members rehearse a scene from Frozen. Left to right: Deborah Gideon (Agnetha), Stephen Polchert (Guard), and Matthew Smith (Ralph). ]