Theater review: ‘The Bad Seed’ at HART Theatre

DARK DAYS: Ryan Peterson, Pam Elder, Amanda Klinikowski and Jack Ross star in the vintage thriller 'The Bad Seed'. Photo courtesy of HART Theatre

It’s the season for things that go bump in the night, and, appropriately, HART Theatre has resurrected a vintage thriller. The Bad Seed, written by Maxwell Anderson and based on the William March novel, runs through Sunday, Nov. 4.

Dressed in her blood-red dress and matching tap shoes, little Rhoda Penmark (played by Abby Welchel), positions her blonde pigtails and heads out the door for her school picnic. Later, her mother Christine (Amanda Klinikowski) hears on the radio about the tragic drowning of Rhoda’s classmate Claude. Christine is prepared to mourn with her traumatized daughter, but Rhoda returns surprisingly vacant and dismissive. Suspicion arises when Christine finds, in Rhoda’s jewelry box, the school-awarded medal that was missing from Claude’s dead body.

In the mid-1950s, The Bad Seed was extremely popular on both stage and screen. It won Nancy Kelly a Tony Award in 1955, and just a year later, she was nominated for an Oscar alongside Patty McCormack and Eileen Heckart. Viewers of the play will notice major differences in the endings that affect the chilling mood of HART’s Halloween-ready production for the better.

This version, directed by Wanda Taylor, is fun for myriad reasons. Because of stellar performances (and a few jaw-dropping missteps), Taylor manages to satisfy a campy feeling reminiscent of the stagey film version.

Welchel deserves considerable praise for playing the demon child with just the right attitude. At times, we can’t believe she is capable of the vicious acts of a sociopath. Then we see a temper arise which makes us question similar mood swings from children we know. This thought is terrifying. It’s fascinating to see a young actor grasp such a mentally taxing role.

Klinikowski avoids affectation and is stunningly realistic as the concerned mother. Whereas Kelly was wonderfully melodramatic in the film, Klinikowski portrays a suspicious woman we can more easily relate to. We believe her subtle awakening and breakdown. She only stalls emotionally when viewing a tragic event involving the groundskeeper Leroy (Adam Welchel) through a window.

Because Leroy is a scoundrel, it’s jarring to see the role performed with a lack of intensity. What this production needs the most is an extra shot of adrenaline. Therefore, it’s necessary for this sinister character to deliver the goods, though Adam Welchel seems capable of more fierceness if he cuts off the long beats in his dialogue.

There are two masterfully rendered supporting performances that cannot go overlooked. Pam Elder plays the nosy but loving landlord Monica with grace and control. She’s a wonderful addition to the production. And Janice Schreiber in the scenery-chewing role of drunken, grieving mother Hortense is astonishingly brilliant. Schreiber lives and breathes this role with everything she’s got. Impeccably balancing camp and realism, she has us laughing at the dark humor and then breaks our hearts.

The Bad Seed induces a disturbing, psychological message for the ages. If a child can be manipulative and clever enough to get away with murder, what will happen when she becomes an adult in a position of power and authority?

WHAT: The Bad Seed
WHERE: Haywood Arts Regional Theatre, 250 Pigeon St., Waynesville, harttheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 4. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. $25.68

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About Kai Elijah Hamilton
Kai Elijah Hamilton was born and raised in Western North Carolina. A poet, screenwriter and playwright, he is also a published film and theater critic. Hamilton is a creative individual with a wide range of talents and interests. He is an Award Winning Actor (Tom in "The Glass Menagerie") and Director ("A Raisin In The Sun"). He previously served as Artistic Director at Hendersonville Little Theatre and has a B.A. in theater and film from Western Carolina University. In 2016, Hamilton's play "The Sleepwalker" won a spot in the first annual Asheville National 10-Minute Play Festival by NYS3. His play "Blackberry Winter" was a finalist in the elite Strawberry One-Act Festival in NYC winning Best Short Film/Video Diary. Hamilton is also the author of the full-length southern-gothic play "Dry Weather Wind" which has been called "Important. Relevant to the issues in today's time, and beautifully written..."

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