Little Rhoda :: Still A ’Bad Seed’ After All These Years
Last year, Mauckingbird Theater mounted "The Temperamentals," a dramatization of the formation of the first gay rights organization The Mattachine Society. The company followed up with their marriage equality interpretation of Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing," which illuminated the seriousness of the subject in classic terms. This week they go for pure camp with a staged reading of Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed, the story of Rhoda Penmark who goes to great lengths to get her penmanship medal.
Mauckingbird director Peter Reynolds has always wanted the company to explore camp and this play and film, from the early 1950s, offers a field day of that theater style. "I wanted the company to try a staged reading this time. There are stories that we want to tell that are cost-prohibited. This will be a loving homage to the whole play and elements of the film it is based on," he said last week.
What makes "The Bad Seed" such a good example of over-the-top theatrics is how cagily Anderson created a sociopath in the person of eight year old Rhoda, who ruthlessly dispatches anyone that gets in her way. To that end, the reading’s theatrically director Leroy lets the actors play to the cheap seats in the back, rather than the up close camera, with inadvertent hilarious results.
Anderson play, adapted from William March’s 1954 novel, opened in 1954 and ran a season, winning Nancy Kelly a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. The press, though, focused on child actor Patty McCormick, who played Rhoda on stage and on film a year later (along with Kelly). Kelly, McCormick and Eileen Heckart (also from Broadway) were nominated for Oscars, though none won. And the film was controversial because the play’s ending, which has Rhoda getting away with murder, was changed to have her be killed (by a bolt of lightning, no less).
Anderson, always a serious playwright, uses the drama to examine the question of whether murderous impulses are something that can be passed down through DNA. What makes the piece so campy is how ridiculous his plot is. The story comes to a head when Rhoda looses the penmanship medal to Claude Daigle and beats him over the head with her tap shoes to get it. But there’s pathos amidst the melodrama, evidenced in the appearance of Claude’s grief-stricken, soused mother (memorably played in the film by Heckart.)
"It was introduced to me when I was in Chicago, by a friend who would regale me with Mrs. Daigle’s drunken monologues. Of course when I finally saw the movie, I loved it. It was dead serious when it premiered. It’s certainly over the top. The protracted scenes of the grieving mother. Delving into the Freudian psychology that goes on with the characters, is classic," Reynolds said.
Another reason he wanted to do it was the opportunity to cast Cheryl Williams, so brilliant in last season’s "Much Ado." "How could you not have Cheryl Williams play Mrs. Daigle?" he wondered out loud. Other cast members include Michelle Eugene as delusional mom Christine, Jared Michael Delaney as the creepy handyman Leroy, Leah Walton as the bossy Mrs. Breedlove and Doug Greene as the buttoned-up Reginald Tasker.
The original stage script even touches on homosexuality. "There’s even a moment in the play (which is decidedly not in the film) where Monica Breedlove (the nosey landlady) states that she believes that her brother, Emory is a latent homosexual. She says it in the play. ’Well if that’s true, they’ll have to change the definition of what that means. He takes trips with men, he’s 52 and unmarried,’ she explains. It’s a fascinating picture of what it was like then," Reynolds said.
Mauckingbird continues to carve its territory with strong "through a gay lens" interpretations of classic plays and new gay themed works. The company is preparing to do more gender-switching in their next fully stage production of Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest" in August, but they are doing a brief revival of their male prep-school version of Shakespeare in Joe Calarco’s "R&J" in May as part of Equality Forum.
The staged reading on Saturday will be hosted by Martha Graham Cracker, hot off her heals from her dates at Joe’s Pub in New York. It is after Mauckingbird’s "Miss Cast: A New Beginning," a cabaret featuring many of Mauckingbird’s stable of actor-singers.
A Staged Reading of The Bad Seed takes place on January 25 at 8pm; January 26 at 10:30pm and January 27 at 2pm. At the Off Broad Street Theatre, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA. For more information, visit The Mauckingbird Theatre Company website.